January 9, 2019 — Los Angeles
This piece originally appeared in Jewish Journal.
By Siamak Kordestani
Punitive measures directed at Israel don’t advance the peace process with the Palestinians. Yet the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement continues its attempts to mobilize academic associations and campuses to embrace their cause, with little success.
Three years ago, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) considered a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Although it was adopted at the group’s annual meeting in December 2015, the measure still required approval by a majority of the 9,000 members before it could take effect. The president of the University of California and 10 UC chancellors urged its defeat, writing: “An academic boycott is an inappropriate response to a foreign policy issue and one that threatens academic freedom and sets a damaging precedent for academia.” The boycott resolution was indeed defeated by the membership.
Nonetheless, Daniel Segal, a Pitzer College anthropology and history professor, was not dissuaded by the final AAA vote. An advisory group member of Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, Segal initiated a resolution, adopted two months ago by his colleagues at Pitzer, to suspend the school’s study-abroad program at the University of Haifa.
The action was strongly condemned by college President Melvin L. Oliver, who called it a “repudiation of Pitzer’s values.”
A 1,000-student liberal arts college in Claremont, Calif., Pitzer offers study-abroad programs in several countries, including ones with authoritarian regimes. None of the other countries — which include China and Vietnam — has ever been targeted by the faculty.
The focus on the Haifa program again highlights the hypocrisy of BDS. The University of Haifa is the most diverse campus in Israel. Its student body is 35 percent Arab in a country that is 21 percent Arab. The university’s Jewish-Arab Center promotes positive relations between Jews and Arabs within Israel through such programs as workshops to develop trust between Arab and Jewish student leaders, scholarships for Arab women, and research toward empowering Israeli civil society. The city of Haifa is a mosaic of Muslim, Christian, Druze, Baha’i and Jewish communities that have historically lived in peaceful coexistence with each other.
University faculty have a responsibility to provide educational opportunities abroad for their students. A faculty member’s opposition to a foreign nation’s policies does not entitle him or her to stop students from studying there.
Students should be able to explore Israeli society without political interference.
Other California universities recognized the potential harm caused by the Pitzer faculty action and, in response, the chancellors of all 10 UC campuses signed a statement condemning academic boycotts of Israeli scholars and institutions of higher education.
The partnership between California and Israeli universities has grown in recent years. In 2017, for example, UC signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel’s National Technological Innovation Authority to collaborate on technological innovation and boost joint research and development.
Israel is a cutting-edge world leader in water management. Farms across California’s Central Valley have benefited enormously from Israeli drip irrigation technology as our state continues to experience a historic drought. The potential for further Israel-California academic cooperation on water, energy, medicine, high-tech and many other fields is vast.
When a governing council comprised of Pitzer College faculty and students meets during the spring semester, its members should firmly reject the recent faculty decision to suspend the study-abroad program in Israel. Pitzer College, which prides itself on teaching and practicing environmental sustainability, should expand its engagement with Israeli universities.
Siamak Kordestani is assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles region.