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US college becomes first American institution to end study abroad programme in Israel

Student activists say Pitzer College is refusing to admit the move was linked to sustained pressure to sever ties to an Israeli university
Pitzer College is located in Claremont, a town in Southern California (MEE/Instagram)

A college in California has officially shut down its study abroad programme with the University of Haifa, in what activists say is the first instance of an institution of higher learning in America enacting an academic boycott against Israel.

In a press release sent to Middle East Eye, dated 1 April, a group comprising of students and faculty, called Suspend Pitzer Haifa, said administrators at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, had decided to sever ties with the University of Haifa because the partnership did not align with the college's core values of “social responsibility” and “intercultural understanding”.

The closure, the group said, followed a six-year campaign at the college in support of the Palestinian-led call for US colleges and universities "to support Palestinian freedom, including academic freedom, by suspending institutional relations with Israeli universities, due to their complicity in Israel’s military occupation, apartheid regime and, now, as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled, a plausible genocide against Palestinians".

In response to this declaration of a rare and unprecedented victory for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in US academia, the college released a statement of its own in which it denied that the closure of the programme - one of 11 programmes that were closed this year - had any link to an academic boycott.

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In its statement released on 2 April, the college would only concede the programme was one of almost a dozen programmes "removed" over their failure to meet "certain criteria outlined in the college’s guiding principles".

But the statement also added that though the programmes were "removed", they were still "not closed".

"These programs are not closed to Pitzer students, nor do any of these actions reflect an academic boycott of any country or educational institution," the statement reads.

"Pitzer students may still attend these programs through a petition process overseen by the Study Abroad and International Programs Committee; the programs are simply no longer pre-approved for enrollment by Pitzer students," the statement says.

Student activists at Pitzer said the college's mixed messaging showed it was refusing to admit it had succumbed to pressure to sever ties with an Israeli university.

Internal communications shown to MEE show that of the 11 programmes marked for removal by the Study Abroad and International Programs Committee, it is only the Haifa University programme that was depicted as not aligning with the college's values. The recommendations also noted that the removal of the Haifa study abroad programme came with significant community support, along with low enrolment numbers. 

Anna Babboni, with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), told MEE the campaign to have the programme pulled had involved a series of actions by students and faculty.

"There was escalating pressure from students which involved a six-year-old campaign as well as an informal boycott of the programme; there were 400-plus alumni who pledged that they won't donate to the college until it endorsed the BDS campaign [and so] the university got nervous and quietly closed the programme under the guise of a lack of enrolment," Babboni said.

Babboni also alluded to a statement issued by faculty on 28 March in which faculty resolved "to stand against any form of discrimination targeting Palestinian students and faculty, and the deliberate exclusion of Palestinian perspectives from the curriculum within Israeli universities".

"As a result, we will actively discourage any partnerships with institutions that perpetuate such practices," the statement seen by MEE reads.

"We call for strengthening institutional connections with Palestinian universities as our commitment to supporting the right to education for Palestinian students and academic freedom for our Palestinian colleagues," the statement says, which was endorsed by 30 votes, six votes against, and six abstentions.

In response to several questions seeking clarity on the college's decision to close the programme, Wendy Shattuck, assistant vice-president of college communications, referred MEE to statements issued by the college and the vice president for academic affairs.

"In the process of evaluating Study Abroad programs against the established criteria, which include five-year enrollment numbers, it was confirmed that the Pitzer University of Haifa program has had zero enrollments in eight years," Shattuck told MEE.

Academic boycotts

Palestinian civil society has long called for a boycott of academic institutions complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. In 2005, the National Students for Justice in Palestine adopted the BDS campaign as a matter of policy.

According to the BDS website, Haifa University is deeply entangled in both the occupation and subjugation of Palestinians.

Among several ties it has to the Israeli state, Haifa University provides scholarships to Israeli military veterans, is home to an Israeli military base and has hosted Israeli military programmes.

Haifa University also revoked the Master's degree of Israeli graduate, Teddy Katz, who had written a thesis that showcased how Israeli soldiers had conducted a massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the village of Tantura in May 1948.

"Haifa University has extreme surveillance and policing policies towards their Palestinian students even though they tout the fact that they have a 40 percent Arab and Palestinian population," Babboni said.

The removal of the programme with Haifa University comes after several direct actions taken by Pitzer students over the past six years. 

In 2018, the faculty of the college voted 20-three to end ties. In 2019, Pitzer’s College Council, comprising of faculty, students, and staff representatives, voted 67-28 in favour of the same. Last month, Pitzer’s student senate voted once more to suspend all ties with Israeli universities. The vote passed almost unanimously at 34-one. 

Following the vote in mid-February, college administrators released a statement claiming the "Student Senate does not speak for the College, nor does it represent the views of all Pitzer students".

"President [Strom] Thacker is committed to the educational mission of the College, to academic freedom, and to maintaining a safe and productive campus learning environment for all. The president will not accept - if and when that time comes - any College resolution antithetical to these principles," the college said.

Several student bodies across the US have called for their universities to either divest from weapons companies supporting the Israeli military or to end relations with institutions of higher learning in Israel.

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In most cases, student bodies at these universities, predominantly Ivy League schools, have been harassed, doxxed and demonised by pro-Israel groups either within or outside the university. 

"This historic BDS win sets [a] precedent for colleges and universities across the US to hold complicit Israeli universities accountable," the group, Suspend Pitzer Haifa, said.

"We invite every institution of higher education to practice the social justice values it teaches and suspend ties with universities that support apartheid, scholasticide and genocide," the group added.

Babboni told MEE that the job, however, was not yet complete. 

"We are still pushing our original resolution through college council, which is coming up next week - on 11 April - to get a broader shared governance vote. Our resolution also talks about not reopening the programme and not opening any other programmes with Israeli universities due to their complicity in apartheid, genocide and ethnic cleansing.

"For now, the programme is closed. We are just hoping to ratify a more cohesive academic boycott through our second resolution," she added. 

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