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Academic Freedom Must Extend to All

The Pitzer College community voted to suspend a study abroad program with the University of Haifa because of its ongoing policies discriminating against Palestinians. But their president decided to overturn a democratic referendum supporting human rights.

(Campus Grotto / Flickr)

During a recent visit to the University of Haifa, Pitzer College president Melvin Oliver described it as “really a model institution for us to partner with and I hope we can continue for years to come.” In contrast, a clear majority of the Pitzer College community did not think Haifa University was a “model institution” because of its ongoing policies discriminating against Palestinian students. The Pitzer College Council voted 67-28 to temporarily suspend the study abroad program with the Israeli institution.

Without assurances that the program with Haifa University would repeal its discriminatory policies and respect human rights, the Pitzer Council chose to sever ties with an institution that contradicts the values of the college and undermines academic freedom principles.

The overwhelming majority of faculty, students, and staff at Pitzer have unequivocally stated that they are unwilling to sanction discrimination based on race, nationality, religion, or difference of opinion. They have elected to pressure the University of Haifa and, by extension, other Israeli universities, to demand changes in Israel’s national policy. Suspending the Pitzer College study abroad program with Haifa University is the most effective and civil way to accomplish this.

I have known Melvin Oliver since 1992. I consider him not only an intellectual giant and an ethical role model, but a friend. He pioneered the study of race and wealth accumulation. As much of the nation retreated from even discussing race or defending policies like affirmative action, his commitment to racial justice never waned.

It is precisely because of my admiration for him and my appreciation for a friendship that began almost thirty years ago, that I express my surprise and disappointment over his continued defense of his decision to veto the Pitzer College Council’s motion.

Unilaterally overturning a democratic referendum supporting human rights seems out of character with Oliver’s well-earned reputation as a defender of democracy and a scholar of institutional discrimination and its consequences.

It is confounding as to why Oliver would find the current status quo acceptable, especially when it affects not only Palestinian students living under Israeli military rule and within Israel itself, but Palestinian-American and potentially other Arab-American students, and anyone who may express views critical of the state of Israel or in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Why deny those students equal opportunity or, at worst, put them in harm’s way? And why participate in Israel’s own ban on creating similar exchanges with universities in the occupied Palestinian territory? The state of Israel does not issue visas permitting foreign students and faculty members to join Palestinian universities for a full semester. These rules and policies are entirely political, and they violate the basic norms of academic freedom.

During his meeting with the Board of Governors at the University of Haifa, Oliver said, “We must preserve critical thinking over political issues.” Clearly, continuing the study abroad program is staking out a political position — one in support of ongoing discrimination, occupation, dispossession, and specifically, the Israeli state’s continued denial of academic freedom for Palestinian students and faculty.

Oliver also argued that the recommendation to suspend the study abroad program “curtails the academic freedom of those students who wish to study at the University of Haifa.” Actually, the recommendation does the very opposite — it simply asks that the privileges of academic freedom extend to all: Palestinian teachers, researchers, students, as well as American and Jewish and Arab Israeli scholars and students critical of the regime.

I am left wondering what Oliver’s position is on the academic freedom of Palestinians in the Occupied Territory and within Israel itself and how his veto of the Council’s resolution and his continued support of the study abroad program with no consequences advance that goal. It is clear to anyone that the institutional forms of discrimination the resolution seeks to change are violations of academic freedom.

Any consideration of “academic freedom” must acknowledge the ongoing history of Israeli raids, closures, and constant disruptions of Palestinian universities, as well as the hundreds of students currently detained in Israeli prisons for political activity, or for reasons unknown based on “secret evidence.” Israel can detain Palestinians for up to six months without charge or trial, with no limits on renewal. Administrative detention, as it is called, is based on several laws, as well as Military Order 1651, which empowers the army to issue orders to detain civilians in the West Bank.

Indeed, during my last visit to Palestine in March of 2018, a major student leader at An-Najah National University in Nablus had just been kidnapped by Israeli security forces and detained incommunicado for weeks and was never charged.

In 2014, the University of Haifa suspended Palestinian students over a vigil commemorating Palestinian dispossession in 1948 and banned activities of Palestinian student clubs. Both decisions were reversed only after Palestinian human rights organizations took the university to court.

Oliver promised to have the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) examine Pitzer’s study abroad program, “with a focus on how it can better reinforce in our students the core values of the college.” This entails considering “ways to ensure that our students attain a deep understanding of the key social justice issues in the countries where they study.” Seeking to expand “students’ opportunities for study abroad in the Middle East and around the world,” he stated that the goal must be “greater engagement, not less, in the world our students will one day lead.”

“Greater engagement” is certainly promising, but as long as the exchange continues as is, there will be no incentive on the part of the Israeli government or the University of Haifa to end discrimination or respect Palestinian academic freedom.

I hope Oliver can recognize that the Pitzer Council’s motion is actually asking for more engagement with Palestinian students in lieu of policies of discrimination. It is not calling for a permanent end to the relationship with the University of Haifa but rather seeks to open up that relationship. It is simply asking Pitzer’s intellectual and institutional partner to abide by international law and respect human rights.