SJP relaunches campaign to suspend Pitzer Haifa study abroad program

Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine is campaigning to end the Pitzer University of Haifa in Israel program. (Courtesy: Jake Chang)

On Thursday, March 30, Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) relaunched their academic boycott campaign to suspend Pitzer College’s direct enrollment study abroad program with the University of Haifa in Israel.

SJP held the relaunch at Pitzer’s Grove House, where over 40 students and community members gathered to listen to a presentation held by club organizers. The event, which was announced on the club’s Instagram page, is part of a series of festivities SJP organized as part of Palestine Freedom Weeks.

The boycott campaign announced last Thursday models after its iteration in the 2018-2019 school year, when SJP addressed grievances with the Haifa program and called upon its conditional suspension based on their demands. The call to suspend the program based on Israel’s discrimination and its subsequent Pitzer College Council motion was a source of tension and controversy between students, faculty and Pitzer’s then-administration.

In their campaign statement published last Thursday, SJP emphasized the University of Haifa’s systematic discrimination against Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students. Most Palestinian students are barred from entry into the program, which they said undermines Pitzer’s commitment to academic freedom. 

“Because of the violence and discrimination faced by Palestinians at the University of Haifa and in occupied Palestine, we believe that no student should study abroad at a university operating on occupied land — especially considering that many Palestinian students cannot attend this program,” SJP said in their statement. 

Currently, SJP’s demands include that the program be suspended until “the Israeli state ends its restrictions on entry to Israel based on ancestry and/or political speech and the Israeli state adopts policies granting visas for exchanges to Palestinian universities on a fully equal basis as it does to Israeli universities,” SJP said in their campaign statement. 

If they were to suspend the Haifa program, Pitzer would become the first institution nationally to endorse the academic boycott, according to SJP. 

“It’s important for us to target the institutions that we’re currently at and ask ourselves, ‘how does our current institution further perpetuate Israeli violence and Israeli apartheid?’” SJP organizer Miriam Farah CM ‘23 told TSL. 

In 2019, the Pitzer College Council, which is composed of students, faculty and staff, voted 67 to 28 in favor of conditionally suspending the program, following more than a year of organizing. Pitzer became the first higher education institution to pass such a motion.  

However, former Pitzer President Melvin Oliver vetoed the vote less than three hours after it occurred, citing the political nature that would be implicated in the suspension, stating that “[i]t is rarely, if ever, the role of the college to be taking such positions” in a press release

Oliver has since retired from his role as president and Strom Thacker is set to take on his role this July. Farah added  that with this new campaign, SJP hopes to make the feelings of the Pitzer community clear to Thacker. 

“It’s very important for us to consider these shifting dynamics of concern and how students and faculty can have an active role in the new president’s agenda,” Farah said.

The campaign is part of a wider trend advocating for Palestinian liberation internationally, namely the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that was adopted by the National Students for Justice in Palestine in 2005. 

SJP cited the wave of support in academia, including the Middle East Studies Association vote to endorse the Palestinian call for BDS on March 23, 2022. However, SJP organizers like Anna Babboni SC ‘24 hope that the 5C community becomes more engaged in such conversations about BDS on campus.. 

“There’s been some loss of momentum about taking up BDS on these campuses, so even just talking about the academic boycott […] is a huge way to create a domino effect on our campuses to get people interested and committed to Palestinian liberation and freedom,” Babboni said. 

Pitzer Professor of Anthropology and History Dan Segal is a strong proponent for the Suspend Pitzer Haifa campaign and was previously involved in leading the initial faculty vote in 2018 that catalyzed the College Council motion the following year.

As a person of Jewish background, Segal has been active in Palestinian solidarity work in the United States for decades by showing support for Palestinian freedom and liberation. He said he cannot support Pitzer in facilitating the program. 

“We shouldn’t have an exchange relationship with a university, for instance, in which Palestinian students don’t have equal rights at those universities to Jewish students,” Segal said. 

Segal also called upon Haifa’s involvement with occupation forces as a reason that Pitzer should not maintain an exchange relationship with the university. In addition, he endorses the BDS movement in providing a nonviolent path for institutions to show that they are unwilling to support the Israeli state. 

“When that message gets across, that’s when Israel will come finally to the negotiating table and will negotiate an end to their atrocities [and] their human rights violations,” Segal said. 

Segal also called upon the next Pitzer president to act differently than his predecessor.

“We have to count on him […] not to support the denial of freedom to other people [and] not to support other people living under repression,” Segal said. “If he were to veto a successful suspension of the Pitzer Haifa program and show that he, like Melvin Oliver is a supporter of apartheid, is a supporter of murderous ethnic cleansing, then very clearly he’s unfit to serve.”

The launch of the boycott campaign is part of the Palestinian Freedom Weeks that SJP is currently hosting through March and April. According to Babboni, SJP aims to promote cultural events, conduct political education and advocate for the Claremont community to take up BDS.

On April 2, SJP and the 5C Prison Abolition co-hosted a talk titled “Policing in the US and Palestine.” Around 30 students attended the discussion with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, an organization that builds community power to abolish police surveillance and its deliberate harm toward Black and Brown people. 

During the talk, members of the Coalition spoke about abolitionist organizing and the connection between US and Israeli policing and human rights. 

Farah said the talk was important in drawing connections between the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Israeli Defense Fund (IDF).  

“What I found most interesting was how police organizations and forces in LA have close ties to Zionist and Israeli organizations,” Farah said. “I think oftentimes people forget how much funding the U.S. government gives to Israel, nearly 4 billion [dollars] per year, and most of it goes to military aid, so I think it’s important for us to draw these connections.” 

On Tuesday, March 28, SJP also held an Academic Boycott 101 event, along with a history of BDS at the 5Cs. Farah said she sees these events as a way for students from any background to participate in the BDS movement and provide feedback. 

The Suspend Pitzer Haifa campaign circulated a petition in support of the demands for the conditional suspension.

“We want to reiterate the point that the Pitzer community voted to suspend this program during the 2018-2019 school year and there is continued support for that resolution,” Farah said. 

Babboni emphasized the importance of the petition in guiding SJP’s future actions. 

“We want to show that this is a community ask, that this is what the Pitzer community wants,” Babboni said. “We want to pulse check where people are at with how committed they feel to taking up the academic boycott and what the boycott means to them and get the ball rolling for our future campaign strategy.”

Segal called upon the 5C community and administration to show continued support for the campaign and expand throughout the consortium. 

“The challenge ought to be to the faculty, students and staff at each of the other colleges which have not ended their exchange relations with Pomona [College], Scripps [College] and [Claremont McKenna College],” Segal said. “Every college and university in this consortium should ask itself, ‘Can they support a program that is bolstering apartheid, a program that denies academic freedom to Palestinians?’”

In an April 4 email to TSL, Assistant Vice President of College Communications Wendy Shattuck told TSL that Pitzer was aware of the campaign but had no further comments at the time.

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