On Thursday, a day on which rockets were fired at Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip, the College Council of Pitzer College voted overwhelmingly to suspend Pitzer’s study abroad program with the University of Haifa. The council, a board that includes faculty, students, and staff, joins the college’s professoriate, which had already voted to suspend the program in November.
The College Council motion doesn’t mention the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement but, like BDS, it focuses on exactly one Jewish state. The authors of the resolution, Claudia Strauss and Daniel Segal, both professors of anthropology, had to perform evasive maneuvers to justify canceling the Haifa program alone. Pitzer maintains programs in China and Rwanda, both uncommonly repressive regimes with no regard for academic freedom.
And look! They’re embarking on a program with the University of Zimbabwe, “conditions permitting.” I guess they need to be confident that what Freedom House calls “an alarming pattern of violence” by the country’s repressive government against its own citizens won’t threaten Pitzer’s students. Our State Department says that Zimbabwe has some human rights “issues,” such as “arbitrary killings, government-targeted abductions, and arbitrary arrests; torture; harsh prison conditions; criminal libel; censorship; restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association, and movement; government corruption”—you get the idea. Pitzer’s study abroad office notes, without apparent irony, that Zimbabwe has “struggled politically.” But have a nice trip!
So, to square its rejection of Israel with its rejection of absolutely no other country, the Council’s motion focuses wholly on the specifics of Israel’s visa policy. Among other things, that policy bars certain supporters of boycotting Israel from entering the country. There is, of course, no reason to make that the line a nation must not cross, other than to explain why the University of Haifa is untouchable, while universities in nations engaged in breathtaking human rights violations are touchable.
The Arab boycott of Jewish products preceded the existence of Israel. Excuses for boycotting have changed over time. But the reason for the Pitzer boycott is the same as it has ever been: to strike a blow against the intolerable presence and strength of Jews in the Middle East. Yes, the motion suggests that there may be ways to permit students to travel to Israel without dirtying themselves through contact with Israel’s universities. And yes, the motion allows for the possibility that other countries may one day also be deemed too filthy to touch. The American Studies Association said much the same thing when they voted for boycott in 2013. Somehow, they haven’t gotten around to boycotting anyone else yet.
I think those who voted for the resolution must have taken these kinds of minor qualifications seriously, choosing not to dwell on the extent to which the action was driven by Professor Segal, an activist in the BDS movement. Even if Israel were to adopt an open borders policy tomorrow, that wouldn’t stop this movement from falsely branding Israel an apartheid state. Segal is not the least bit shy about where he stands, but the faculty and staff who went along with him have no excuse for subordinating their college to the aims of such a transparently prejudicial movement.
Nor should they be excused because Pitzer’s President Melvin Oliver, who went on record against suspending the program back in November, has announced that he won’t implement the College Council’s recommendation. President Oliver’s reasons are sound, and he doesn’t hesitate to call the Council’s action “prejudiced.” But a president does not a college make. In his November statement, Oliver said that the faculty’s vote conveyed “the impression that Pitzer is an illiberal place where its supposed core value of intercultural understanding is sacrificed on the altar of narrow and selectively applied political interests.” But after the 67-28 vote in a body no one has claimed is unrepresentative of Pitzer, why should anyone consider that impression wrong?
President Oliver and whoever may be with him deserve a chance to demonstrate that Pitzer College is not as bad as it looks. But the vote deserves to be remembered, if not for the reason BDS supporters might think. This is the first time that the stakeholders of a college—not a student government association, but the faculty, staff, and students of a college—has voted to ignore the protests of those in their community who consider BDS anti-Semitic and to ignore their responsibility to preserve scholarship and teaching from partisanship. And all to spit on a country most of them don’t know a blessed thing about.
We’ll spare the students, who are young and have irresponsible teachers. Everyone else involved deserves our contempt.