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Don't Ban Haifa

The following is an updated version of an article from April 2023

President Joe Biden has grown increasingly frustrated with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his attempts to rein in Israel’s military campaign. In their latest phone call on Thursday, Biden “reiterated his view that a military operation should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the civilians in Rafah,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Yet student activists still act as though their colleges can have more sway than the American President. 

JVP and SJP’s pressure to ban Haifa is part of the larger Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to punish Israel to incite political change. Israel’s policies, particularly its blockade of Gaza, its retaliation against Hamas, and its settlements in the West Bank have inspired punitive action by American students and academics. The boycott advocates liken modern-day Israel to South Africa under Apartheid. If boycotts, divestment, and other economic sanctions helped to end Apartheid, the same tactics can work to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories – so goes the argument. 

But let us ask a simple question: on whom would a boycott put pressure? For one, it would make Jewish and Israeli students on campus feel ostracized, but the obvious answer is Israeli institutions of higher education, the ostensible targets of the boycott. Yet that answer unveils the confused logic of this SJP effort. Israeli universities, like American ones, are overwhelmingly liberal and opposed to the Netanyahu government. An analogy would be trying to put pressure on an incoming Trump Administration by boycotting Pitzer. An academic boycott is the least effective of weapons. It punishes SJP’s natural allies while leaving the intended target unaffected.

It would also prevent American students opposed to Israeli government policies from seeing and learning about their impact in person. Can you think of a better opportunity for 5C students interested or concerned about Israel-Palestine than a semester in Haifa? The program is an opportunity for students to travel to the region and learn first-hand from Palestinians about their experiences while attending the most diverse school in the Middle East. 

Among Pitzer’s core values is the promotion of intercultural understanding. Central to this is its robust study abroad program that, in the words of former Pitzer President Melvin Oliver, “enables students to reach their own conclusions about the world’s most vexing challenges through on-the-ground, face-to-face experience.” 

There is also an issue of consistency and double standards. Pitzer’s study abroad program sponsors students to travel to places that include Kunming, China, and Beirut, Lebanon. China is among the most egregious violators of human rights in the world, a non-democracy without basic rights for its citizens, charged with genocide against the Uighur minority and terrible oppression in Tibet. According to Amnesty International, Lebanon discriminates against women, migrants, and LGBTQ+ people. 

Certainly, Pitzer’s study abroad programs in those countries do not amount to endorsements of the human rights violations of their respective ruling regimes. Just as those programs are not endorsements, the banning of a study abroad program in Israel is not a meaningful act of criticism or an effective approach to changing government policies or military strategy in Israel. It’s a symbolic posture that would accomplish nothing other than increasing our own ignorance of what’s really happening there. 


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