Top university presidents tour Israel and the West Bank on comp hasbara trip

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University chancellors and presidents on complimentary hasbara tour to Israel organized by Project Interchange. (Photo: Project Interchange/The Times of Israel)

Earlier this month a group of university presidents and chancellors traveled to Israel and the West Bank with Project Interchange, the hasbara tourism branch of the American Jewish Committee specializing in bringing movers and shakers from the U.S. to Israel. Project Interchange delegations are specialized “to bolster their global relationships and bilateral academic exchange and cooperation.” The organization has sent nearly 6,000 people on their trips, which have included “counterterrorism” training for police departments and customized programs for U.S. elected officials, and campus “student leaders.” 

Each year Project Interchange also runs a handful of programs designed specifically for minority groups, including trips advertised for “African American leaders,” “African American Clergy,” and “Latino Leaders.”  In keeping with the this trend, this year’s university leaders trip also includes the participation of the first university president from a historically black college, Beverly Tatum from Spelman College. Another notable participant was UC Davis’ Linda Kateh, who gained national attention last fall when under her tenure university police brutally pepper sprayed protesting students.

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                African American Leaders on Project Interchange’s hasbara tour, 2011.                          (Photo: Project Interchange/Facebook)

It is difficult to quantify the effectiveness of advocacy tourism, but the presidents of Cornell University and the University of California both participated in Project Interchange trips before signing onto massive academic partnerships with Israeli universities. Last winter Cornell’s president David Skorton credited his Project Interchange trip for his $450 million deal with Technion University to build a collaborative New York City campus. From the Cornell Chronicle:

Cornell President David Skorton also has had Technion connections. He and Technion President Peretz Lavie developed a good relationship when Skorton led an American Jewish Committee Project Interchange tour of Israel with other university presidents in the summer of 2010. ‘Peretz and I hit if off, and then we reconnected over the NYC Tech Campus proposal.’

And president of the entire University of California system, Mark Yudof, flew to Israel on a Project Interchange trip only two weeks after assuming his position in 2008.  Since, Yudof has re-initiated a UC wide study abroad program in Israel.

Protesting the university leaders Project Interchange trip, professors with the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) issued a letter condemning academic partnerships with Israel:

Dear Presidents and Chancellors,

It has come to our attention that you participated in a recent delegation of U.S. university presidents to Israel (July 1-9, 2012), the purpose of which was to bolster bilateral academic exchange and cooperation with Israeli universities, and to explore opportunities for academic and research collaboration between your universities and Israeli universities. [1]

We are writing to urge you, in the strongest possible terms, not to pursue institutional relationships between your universities and Israeli universities, and to discontinue any existing institutional relationships that might already exist. We ask you instead to honor the call for the worldwide academic and cultural boycott of Israel, initiated in 2004 by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and supported by the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. [2]

Four Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Mairead Maguire have described Israel as an apartheid state [3], and this description has been supported by the Russell Tribunal [4] and the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa. [5] Far from being the exemplar of “a richly diverse country” or representing “Martin Luther King’s ideals of equality, integration, peace, collaboration and the value of education,” Israel is founded upon discrimination, ongoing ethnic cleansing, and the segregation of access to infrastructure, resources and even education. Indeed, the racist nature of the state of Israel is so extreme that University of Miami president Donna Shalala, who participated in a delegation similar to yours, was detained, interrogated, and humiliated at Ben-Gurion International Airport, in July 2010, simply because of her Arab ethnicity. [6]

Israel’s institutions of higher education are not innocent in relation to this systematic regime of segregation and discrimination, occupation and ethnic cleansing. To give only a handful of examples, Tel Aviv University, which you visited, currently has some 55 joint projects with the Israeli military, especially in the “innovative” field of electro-optics that directly serve and supply the occupation. Hebrew University is built on and continues to expand into occupied East Jerusalem, from which Palestinians continue to be “transferred,” despite its internationally recognized status as the future capital of any independent Palestinian State. Academics in Technion and other institutions have been directly engaged in furnishing the hydrological and demographic surveys that have guided the construction of the separation wall and the illegal settlements on the West Bank. Technion has been directly involved in the development of a remote-controlled “D9” bulldozer used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian houses in acts of collective punishment or ethnic cleansing. All Israeli academic institutions are involved in structural discrimination against Palestinian students. [7]

Earlier this year, a delegation of US professors went on an alternative tour, organized by USACBI, and witnessed the impact of the Israeli occupation on the Palestinian people. They wrote eloquently of their experiences, and their commitment to sever ties with Israel until it abides by international law, in a widely-circulated statement. [8]

Returning from that delegation, the eminent African American historian, Robin Kelley commented in an account of his visit there on “the efforts Israel puts into and invests in normalizing the situation there.” [9] He is correct: the gradual recognition in the media and among an increasing segment of the US and global public of the nature of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, supported by ample documentation of Israel’s egregious abuses, has dealt a serious blow to Israel’s image in the West. As a result, the Israeli government has launched a rebranding campaign (“Brand Israel”), to fix its image, with no attempt to alter the policies that have tarnished this reputation. [10] Delegations such as yours are part of this government campaign, which seeks to distract attention from its violations of international law and of the Palestinian people’s inalienable human rights, by shining a very partial light on Israel’s academic and cultural accomplishments.

Under these circumstances, the establishment of institutional links between your universities and Israeli universities would be de facto recognition and support of Apartheid and colonialism. It would be the moral equivalent of supporting South African institutions during its Apartheid era, and would place you on the wrong side of history.

We urge you to resist the temptation to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions until Israel satisfies the requirements of international law and universally recognized human rights. And we encourage you to inform yourself more fully of the nature of Israel’s discriminatory regime and occupation. The signatories of this letter write on behalf of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, a representative of which would be happy to meet or talk with you to clarify our concerns. We can be reached at [email protected]

Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, San Francisco State University
Angela Y. Davis, University of California, Santa Cruz
Gina Dent, University of California, Santa Cruz
Nada Elia, Antioch University- Seattle
Richard Falk, University of California, Santa Barbara and Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine for the UN Human Rights Council
Jess Ghannam, UC San Francisco
Sherna Berger Gluck, California State University, Long Beach
Anna Guevarra, University of Illinois, Chicago
Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Spelman College
Robin D. Kelley, University of California, Los Angeles
David Klein, California State University, Northridge
David Lloyd, University of California, Davis
Frederick C. Moten, Duke University
James Petras, Bartle Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University
Edie Pistolesi, California State University, Northridge
Mona Philips, Spelman College
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate
Waziyatawin, University of Victoria

For the Advisory Board and Organizing Collective of USACBI, the United States Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel




[3] Carter; Mandela; Tutu; Maguire








The list of participants included:

Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, University of California, Davis
President Louis Agnese, Jr., University of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio, TX
President Lawrence Biondi, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO
President Karen Haynes, California State University San Marcos
President Elliot Hirshman, San Diego State University
Chancellor Dorothy Leland, University of California, Merced
Chancellor Harvey Perlman, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
President Beverly Tatum, Spelman College, Atlanta, GA
Chancellor Randy Woodson, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC

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[Screams in frustration. Very, very loudly.]

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that my university was not on this list. Then I did a quick search and learned that my Chancellor has already gone on this trip. I am going to raise hell over this at SJP next year. Thank you for the… Read more »

This is impressive. Front and obvious is Linda Katehi the chancilor of UC Davis who was responsible for that famous pepper spraying incident last year against the campus occupy students. She survived that scandal with support of the faculty. Maybe not as well known is that she was part of… Read more »

The ‘list of participants’ is actually pleasantly unimpressive. About the closest thing to a top-flight school there is UC Davis — which as I understand it, is a good choice if you’re an undergraduate, but… I also don’t recognize any of the ‘Black leaders.’ Maybe the trip for ‘Hispanic leaders’… Read more »

A good USACBI letter by good people. Now… …Each of them should lead a delegation (even if must be a delegation of one person) to their university’s student government, and demand a resolution supporting total boycott by their university against Israel. Palestinian life is worth that much of an effort… Read more »