President Melvin Oliver’s Visit to the University of Haifa

On May 28th, 2019, Pitzer President Melvin Oliver visited the Israeli University of Haifa, during which he addressed over 200 attendees at the Board of Governors meeting and affirmed his support not only for the University’s study abroad program with Pitzer College, but also for Israel’s deeply racist and violent policies towards the Palestinian people.

Oliver’s address at the University of Haifa comes almost three months after his authoritarian veto of the vote democratically reached by Pitzer’s College Council that demonstrated overwhelming support among the Pitzer community and beyond for the conditional suspension of its study abroad program with the University of Haifa. The vote and the resolution were historic in the realm of pro-Palestine activism in U.S. higher academia, which made the veto equally historic for the College as it was the second time in the College’s 56-year history that the Pitzer administration unilaterally rejected a democratic motion, both times being in response to resolutions in solidarity with the Palestinian people. President Oliver’s recent visit to the University of Haifa indicated his continued shameless and explicit bias against Palestinians and his complete disregard for democratic shared governance at Pitzer College.

Oliver’s defiance of the vote make his political stance clear, which completely contradicts his repeated attempts to claim Pitzer College is an apolitical institution. Political boycotts are not foreign to Pitzer — in 1986, Pitzer set a precedent in California by voting to divest from companies engaging in business with Apartheid South Africa. Oliver’s statement also erased the long history of student activism and wide support among the Pitzer community in favor of answering Palestinian civil society’s call to promote justice internationally.

Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine immediately took action following the veto. We released a petition calling upon President Oliver to rescind the veto and garnered over 1200 signatures, which included 411 students, faculty, parents, alumni, and incoming students at Pitzer College; 566 students at the other six Claremont Colleges; and hundreds more academics, activists, non-profits, and political officials across the country and internationally. We received endorsements from scholars whose works we had read in Pitzer classes, notably including Cornel West, Judith Butler, Ilan Pappé, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Richard A. Falk, former U.N Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council. Thus, we reject Oliver’s dismissive comment that the vote came out of a “one-man media operation”; rather, we recognize the instrumental participation of students, faculty, alumni, parents, and allies in making the vote genuinely well-informed and democratic.

We strongly condemn the vindictive and personal attacks that President Oliver made against Pitzer Professor Daniel Segal, which includes his claims that Professor Segal coerced the faculty into voting a specific way and thus “faculty were primed to vote positively and promptly”. His singling out of Segal is as unpresidential as it is malicious and dangerous. Impugning the judgment of the College’s own faculty members has served only to damage the credibility of the institution itself. Surely the brilliant and competent scholars, the leading educators of generations of students at Pitzer, are well aware of how to think critically and voted thoughtfully and with compassion extended to the human rights of Palestinians.

There is a long history of students and faculty being doxxed, blacklisted, and threatened for their courageous pro-Palestinian activism, and President Oliver’s actions have given a platform to these malicious attacks. President Oliver’s personal attacks on Segal not only erases the collective historical and ongoing efforts that a large community of students at the Claremont Colleges have undertaken to fight for Palestinian justice, such as the Student Senate BDS bill in 2017 that was voted in but overturned by the Board of Trustees, but also completely disregards Palestinian civil society’s calls (specifically the Palestinian community at the University of Haifa) to promote justice internationally and suspend the program.

At his address in Israel, Oliver stated, “It is a credit to your institution [University of Haifa] that in this debate, no one can point to any policies or actions by the University of Haifa that would even be remotely linked to a rationale of suspending our program.” The letter of support we received from Palestinian students at Israeli universities show how very out of touch President Oliver is with the way that these universities operate. In their letter, the students from the Roots Unity Bloc at Haifa University, the Edward Said Forum at Tel-Aviv University, and the Galilee Bloc from Tel Hai College cite the universities’ policies antithetical to academic freedom. Whether it’s the militarized campus policing, the restriction of academic content, and the censorship of Palestinian voices, the experiences of these Palestinian students are by no means unique. A study conducted by Haaretz (July 2017) showed that half of all Palestinian students at Israeli universities suffered from the racist policies and racist attitudes from faculty themselves. These are institutions where Ramadan is not observed, where Arabic is not a language of instruction, and where armed Israeli soldiers attend classes and live in the dorms.

These discriminatory policies also extend to Jewish students who express pro-Palestinian sentiments. Renowned Israeli professor Dr. Ilan Pappé was forced to leave the university due to his research and teaching on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. In a letter penned in support of Pitzer suspending their direct-enroll program with Haifa, Pappé expresses how material and central these discriminatory policies are to the University of Haifa: “As for myself, I was forced to leave the university due to my insistence of researching and teaching about the 1948 catastrophe as an ethnic cleansing and a crime against humanity. My case was one of the reasons the academic boycott targeted Haifa in particular as a site that violates freedom of expression and supports the denial of the 1948 Nakba.” As summed in Pappé’s account, “These are not marginal actions, but integral part of the university policy.”

In addition to Oliver’s targeted vilification, what we find even more unacceptable is his egregious comparison of the suspension of the study abroad program to the Muslim Ban enacted by the Trump administration in 2017: “To boycott a country on the basis of their policies is, by definition, a blanket indictment of the nation itself, and by extension, its citizens. This is whether we are talking about Israel and its immigration policies or the United States and its [partial] Muslim ban.” By invoking this comparison, Oliver is callously weaponizing institutionalized Islamophobia that is embedded in the domestic and foreign policy of the United States, and manipulating its language and purpose for the intent of his pro-Israel agenda. The suspension of the Haifa program is one that is based on protesting against the anti-Arab/anti-Palestinian policies of not only the institution of the University of Haifa, but also the settler-colonial nation state of Israel, the Occupied Territories, and beyond.

The Muslim Ban, however, is an imperialist, Islamophobic, and white supremacist act of banning people from Muslim countries from entering the United States. Both the Muslim Ban and the discriminatory policies at the University of Haifa fall within the same growing global racist and imperialist logic logic of Muslims and Arabs being “terrorists.” President Oliver and his deeply racist support for the University of Haifa is predicated on untrue statements. If Melvin Oliver truly cared about combating Islamophobia and racism, he would have taken action when students of color and Muslim students were being targeted with posters by pro-Israel groups that suggested that students in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement were terrorists. If Melvin Oliver truly cared about combating Islamophobia and racism, he would be in complete support of conditionally suspending the direct-enrollment study abroad program with the University of Haifa.

As is common in the realm of student organizing, Oliver strategically chose to plan his visit during the summer time, as college administrators count on student dispersal to allow them to undertake acts of suppression without pushback. Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine is in this for the long fight, however, as we know that justice does not come easy. We will continue to organize, advocate, and stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people amidst racist settler-colonial occupation and apartheid, no matter how much administrative suppression is put upon us. The overwhelming vote in favor of suspending the study abroad program indicates that Oliver and his Zionist ideologies stands in the minority within the Pitzer community, and he is able to wield his disproportionate amount of power in order to impose them. We promise to keep fighting the power.

In solidarity,

Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine

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