(May 29, 2019 / JNS) Professor Melvin L. Oliver, president of Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who defied pressure to boycott Israeli academia by vetoing the vote by a Pitzer governance body to suspend the college’s study-abroad exchange with University of Haifa, gave the keynote lecture at University of Haifa’s 47th annual board of governors meeting on May 28.
The two academic institutions have been at the center of a highly publicized Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement debate in recent months.
According to Oliver, BDS motions began as the campus Students for Justice in Palestine adviser, Professor Dan Segal, led a campaign to suspend Pitzer’s direct-enrollment program at University of Haifa in northern Israel. Following a trip to the Jewish state one summer, Segal returned to campus and held meetings with other professors “to supposedly teach them about what life was like for Palestinians in the occupied territories,” Oliver told JNS.
Although most directives come from students, said Oliver, Segal’s BDS motion was one of the first to be faculty-led.
Following last November’s initial BDS vote by the Pitzer faculty, which Oliver strongly opposed, students at Pitzer College voted to suspend the semester at the University of Haifa program on March 14. However, on the same day, Oliver swiftly announced that he would veto the council’s recommendation because ending the study-abroad program “puts in place a form of academic boycott of Israel and, in the process, sets us on a path away from the free exchange of ideas, a direction which ultimately destroys the academy’s ability to fulfill our educational mission.”
“It was an uncomfortable situation,” said Oliver, who said Jewish students on campus felt singled out for “having positions that SJP gave to them or were assumed to have as defenders of Israel.”
“As a deep believer in liberal arts education, which allows people to think independently,” he said, “we found [these motions] of people who support the BDS movement profoundly confounding.”
Professor Ron Robin, president of the University of Haifa, expressed his gratitude to Oliver’s “principled defiance” of the BDS-motivated call to suspend study-abroad ties in Haifa.
“It takes bravery and guts in the face of very aggressive opposition to take the position he took,” Robin told JNS. “It was a position of principle; he stood his ground against heavy pressure. It’s easy to preach and more difficult to practice, and we are eternally grateful for his position.”
‘A teachable moment’
While Israel does not profess to be a perfect society by any stretch of the imagination, noted the college presidents, as educators, they said “we understand our fallibilities and weaknesses, but consider ourselves as part of higher education where dialogue is not barred.”
If the motion had passed, Oliver imagined that “it would have made it difficult to create trust, sociality and community” for Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus. “You cannot bring people together when there are winners and losers,” he said.
He added that the opportunity for a transformative educational opportunity would have been lost for students, many whom later return to Israel after graduation to work on behalf of issues of cooperation across lines.
“This is what inspired leadership looks like—in academia or in any setting,” said Robin of Oliver’s defense of academic freedom and standing against discrimination. “That is why it is so crucial that President Oliver [took] the stage at our board of governors meeting, in order to further articulate these indispensable values to Israel and to the world.”
At the meeting, the board lamented that many universities have lost their mission of teaching critical thinking skills and broadening minds. According to Robin, “You can’t teach people how to think if you teach them what to think.”
Similarly, said Oliver, educating students about diverse cultures and histories, and offering a cross-cultural study-abroad experience, teaches students to think critically. “We must preserve critical thinking over political issues,” he declared.
“Once you go down that line, you are privileging certain kinds of thinking and excluding others, and sometimes you have to make decisions to stand on a higher level of principle to defend the university’s core mission,” Oliver said, defending his decision to veto the BDS vote.
The board also considered University of Haifa’s goals—namely, to “practice tolerance, diversity and justice,” according to the university president. Considering these goals, Robin questioned, “How on earth did they pick on us? Our relationship with Pitzer is all about social justice,” he said, calling the boycott “ludicrous.”
He believes that the University of Haifa’s excellent report card is the very reason why Segal singled it out.
“We contradict the narrative of BDS,” he explained. “Forty percent of students on campus are Muslims, Christians and Druze. They study, work and play beside Jewish students, and this is the epitome of social justice, equality and opportunity for education. Removing that from the map is important to the BDS movement because people often ask [while challenging BDS’s claims], ‘What about Haifa?’ ”
Looking on the bright side, Robin said “this is a teachable moment—an opportunity to educate our students and ourselves about issues that impinge on colleges. It’s something to reflect upon in the context of our mission as educators. We talk about the ivory tower, but no college is an island.”