[Prefatory Note: The post is an open letter to the President of Pitzer College urging support for reconsideration of his veto of a resolution urging the college to suspend its study abroad program with the University of Haifa until Israel ends its discriminatory policies in the educational sphere that affect Palestinians and anyone exercising rights of free expression in a manner that Israel disapproves, and more. specifically the BDS Campaign. With the UN unable to bring peace, the long failed effort at. American-led diplomacy, and now Trump in the White House it. is time for civil society to speak and to act.]
March 19, 2019
Open Letter to the President of Pitzer College, Melvin L. Oliver:
I write in response to your reported decision to overrule the vote of the Pitzer Student/Faculty/Staff Council urging the suspension of the Study Abroad program of Pitzer with the University of Haifa until Israeli discrimination on the basis of race and legally protected political speech with respect to entry and issuance of visas ceases. Through your statements supporting the rejection of this vote by this representative campus body, you are using your executive position to make your judgment prevail over the decision of the democratic procedures in place to reflect the collective judgment of the Pitzer College community. I find this troubling for both procedural and substantive reasons, and from what I have heard, demoralizing and disillusioning for many persons on and off the campus.
Your statements rely on two broad arguments. First, that the business of Pitzer College is to promote education, not social justice, and that some students might be deprived of valuable educational opportunities. And secondly, that Israel’s alleged wrongdoing is certainly not worse than that of several other countries, and singling out Israel is thus applying double standards and is unfair and hence “political.” These objections raise important issues, but they do not, in my judgment, outweigh the case for supporting the resolution mandating the suspension of this Study Abroad Program until the conditions in the resolution are met.
I have had occasion to consider these arguments and to study comparable issues over the course of six years (2008–2014) in my role as UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. It was clear that the UN–and indirectly, the United States had a special responsibility with respect to both the State of Israel and the Palestinian people that goes back to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 that is different and. more pronounced than that toward other victimized peoples around the world. Furthermore, as a result of a collaborative report of which I was one of the two authors, written as an independent academic study under contract with the UN Economic and Social Council for West Asia, it was concluded that the victimization of the Palestinian people as a whole was dependent on Israeli apartheid state structures associated with upholding a state that by its own Basic Law limits the right of self-determination exclusivelyto the Jewish people. On the basis of my experience at the United Nations, it is overwhelmingly clear that Israel discriminates against Palestinians with respect to entry into its educational institutions and also withholds visas and rights of entry to those from the United States and elsewhere who have exercised their human right of free expression in ways that Israel deems critical of its policies, with a particular animus exhibited against those who support the BDS Campaign.
In so many respects, a preoccupation with Israel’s conduct is appropriate within an American setting.
The United States has presided over a failed peace process for more than twenty years. Against this background, it is obvious that Palestinian basic rights have not been achieved either by the UN, by traditional diplomacy, or by international mediation, and there is no prospect of this changing in the near future. The hope for a sustainable peace for both peoples is the continuation of Palestinian resistance and nonviolent transnational solidarity initiatives of civil society. The BDS Campaign has this objective, as had the analogous movement directed at apartheid South Africa, which finally brought a change of governing policy and sustained racial peace under circumstances in which it was deemed by many outside observers as impossible. This attempt at signaling to Israel and to the world that a study abroad program is unacceptable so long as it operates in accordance with discriminatory standards is part of this struggle for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine. Pitzer College should be proud of its stand, and it should certainly not be blocked by an administrative fiat.
As someone who has been active as a faculty member for more than 50 years, I would take issue with your distinction between the promotion of social justice and the pursuit of educational goals. It is my experience, reinforced by feedback from many students, that the most valuable educational and learning experience during their time at college was their moral engagement with social issues confronting society at the time. College education at its best should involve moral empowerment by way of commitments on issues that challenge conscience. In this controversy about acceptable standards of a study abroad program, the link between social justice and education is organic. As well, taking a stand on a question of this sort relates to the sort of civic education that helps orient younger people to be active in their participation as citizens of a vibrant democracy, and deserves to be considered as part of the educational mission, and not outside of it.
It is my understanding that this is the first instance in the history of Pitzer College in which the president has vetoed a resolution. I would urge you to respect a community consensus on this matter of such deep political conviction and moral commitment. It is certainly the case that reasonable people can weigh the issues at stake in opposite ways, and so the ultimate question at issue is whose voice should prevail. By rejecting the voice of the college community, you are creating tensions that will not subside. If you chose to defer, while setting forth your reasons for disagreement, your actions would create the kind of broader understanding of those invaluable aspects of education that occur outside the classroom in the course of a benevolent college experience.
Finally, I should express my own personal interest in having Pitzer do the right thing in this challenging situation. My son, Dimitri, graduated from Pitzer about 25 years ago, having had a wonderful college experience that I and his mother greatly appreciated. I also had the honor of being a speaker at the installation of the preceding president of Pitzer College, which gave me an occasion to renew my affection for the place.
Professor of International Law, Emeritus, Princeton University
Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB