Students and faculty members at the University of South Florida (USF) are speaking out on President Judy Genshaft’s condemnation of the boycott of Israeli academia. Critics of Genshaft say her stance is colored by her extensive ties to Israel and financial interests in the country, suggesting a possible conflict of interest. They have also pointed to Genshaft’s poor record on academic freedom, undermining her appeals to that principle.
Genshaft began the 2014 year condemning the American Studies Association’s (ASA) call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, describing the resolution as “antithetical to the core values of academic freedom” and “improper.” The boycott is an attempt to reprimand Israel for infringing upon the academic freedom of Palestinian students and other human rights abuses.
Genshaft’s overseas investments reveals ties between the university official and illegal Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank–land deemed by the United Nations to be occupied Palestinian territory.
According to tax returns, Genshaft is a co-manager of the non-profit Genshaft Family Foundation, which donates to various Jewish causes. The foundation accrues interest annually from a $10,000 stake in corporate bonds at the Industrial Development Bank of Israel. Genshaft’s private foundation has received annual dividends from the Israeli bank since at least 1998, according to public tax records.
The Industrial Development Bank of Israel is co-owned by the State of Israel and Israel’s two largest banks, Bank Hapaolim and Bank Leumi. Both of the latter banks operate in and finance settlement activities considered illegal under international law in the occupied Palestinian territories. The banks provide mortgage loans for homebuyers in settlements, special loans for construction projects, and financial services to businesses operating in settlements, amongst other activities.
“With knowledge that President Genshaft condemns a boycott that, if successful, would impose a threat to the stability of her foundation’s investments, I come to believe there is the presence of a conflict of interest and I wish for it to be addressed,” said Malak Fakhoury, vice president of USF’s Students for Justice in Palestine advocacy group.
Pension funds in the Netherlands and in Luxembourg pulled their investments from Bank Hapoalim and Bank Leumi earlier this year. In a move that made headlines in January, Dutch pension giant PGGM pulled the plug on their ties with the five largest banks in Israel. Israeli newspaper Haaretz pointed out that PGGM’s “decision is liable to damage the banks’ image, and could lead other business concerns in Europe to follow suit.” The FDC pension fund of Luxembourg abides by a socially responsible investment policy and has published a list of 61 “excluded” firms that do not comply with its standards.
The United Nations and the International Court of Justice have adopted multiple resolutions calling the establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories a breach of international law. Even President Obama has called the continued settlement expansion policy of the Israeli government an impediment to peace prospects in the region. Nonetheless, Israel has continued its expansion in the Palestinian West Bank territory in defiance of such worldwide condemnations, and with no repercussions.
The banks are directly targeted by the worldwide grassroots call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, which the American Studies Association’s academic boycott is a part of. According to its website, the movement was created in response to calls made by Palestinian civil society to respond to Israeli human rights violations. Founders of the campaign maintain that it is structured along the same principles of the worldwide movement that helped put an end to apartheid in South Africa. The movement subsequently targets Israeli universities because they have “contributed directly to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying” the abuse of Palestinian human rights.
USF international law professor Harry E. Vanden says the boycott against Israeli institutions is analogous to the academic boycotts started in 1965 against institutions operating within the South African apartheid regime. The boycotts halted in 1990 upon the end of apartheid.
“It is certainly legitimate to consider sanctioning [Israel] to force it to come in line with certain precepts of international law,” opined Vanden. “The same way it was legitimate to bring pressure against the state of South Africa to bring its practice into concert with international law, specifically its use of apartheid and racism.”
Some USF faculty expressed concern over Genshaft’s failure to consult them before issuing the anti-boycott statement on behalf of the university.
“I’m not sure why [Genshaft] felt obliged to make a statement on the part of the university. It almost seems that she was trying to satisfy the needs of some other group outside the university,” said Vanden. “If indeed a statement were to be made, it should come from all bodies of the university, or at least they should be consulted. I don’t think any of us were [consulted], or were even aware that she was going to do that.”
The American Studies Association, the largest organization devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, called for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions in December 2013. Two-thirds of participating voters supported the resolution to join other noteworthy academic organizations standing in solidarity with Palestinians denied their academic freedom by Israel. The association justifies its actions on the grounds that Israel continues to bomb Palestinian schools and universities, deport Palestinian students and scholars, and imposes a system of religious and racial segregation. The ASA notes that Israel also prevents the travel of Palestinian scholars, and that Arab students attending Israeli universities are subject to ongoing surveillance. Armed soldiers patrol Israeli universities and some are trained to suppress protestors.
The national boycott has been expectedly met with mixed reactions. Along with USF, more than 200 universities voiced their rejection of the boycott, with four institutions withdrawing completely from the ASA. A letter from the U.S. Congress, signed by 134 members and addressed to ASA President Curtis Marez, suggests “thinly veiled bigotry and bias” on the part of the ASA towards Israel.
At least one supporter of Israel at USF agrees the boycott is a wrong move.
“That’s not how peace is achieved. Academia is how peace is achieved,” said Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, director of the USF Hillel. “We have to work towards peace. Not through boycotts, but by dialogue and negotiation.”
Despite the rabbi’s views, national Hillel guidelines prevent the partnering with and hosting of groups or individuals who support boycotts or sanctions against the State of Israel.
In January, legislation passed in New York’s Senate that would ban state funding to public colleges that give money to organizations participating in the boycott. The bill did not pass through the lower house, but was reintroduced with softer penalties. Other states have passed resolutions condemning the boycott.
And in a move seen by boycott supporters as countering the ASA’s decision, USF Provost Ralph Wilcox was sent on a weeklong trip to build partnerships at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Both institutions are targeted by the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement for their contribution to the Israeli occupation. Tel Aviv University receives funding from the Israeli military for more than 50 projects, and more than 50 percent of its Security Studies Program students “belong to the middle and upper echelon of Israel’s defense establishment,” according to the school’s TAU Review. Hebrew University’s campus is partially built in East Jerusalem, where the United Nations has determined the establishment of Israeli settlements to be a breach of international law.
Wilcox told The Oracle that the trip was taken to gain “a deeper understanding of Israel and its neighbors – a better appreciation of the root cause of the conflict and determine the feasibility of future collaborative solutions.”
Despite that claim, Wilcox made no visit to any Palestinian universities in the West Bank.
When President Genshaft condemned the academic boycott, she said that it is “antithetical to the core values of academic freedom.” It was a curious statement given the university’s record on academic freedom.
Critics have questioned Genshaft’s commitment to academic freedom since the controversial termination of USF professor Sami Al-Arian in 2001 due to being accused of terrorism. After placing Al-Arian on administrative leave, Genshaft was condemned by the USF Faculty Senate, the United Faculty of Florida, and the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest education labor union in the country. The American Association of University Professors stated that Genshaft’s decision raised “grave issues of academic freedom and due process,” and threatened to censure the university. “Support Academic Freedom” bumper stickers, distributed during the United Faculty of Florida’s campaign to bring justice for Al-Arian, still adorn the office doors of several professors who voiced their support.
Al-Arian was found not guilty on most charges, including charges of violence, though he admitted to a conspiracy accusation as part of a plea bargain. Supporters have said the agreement was reached in part to end his family’s suffering. Al-Arian is waiting to be deported, having been held under house arrest since 2008.
Critics say another blemish on Genshaft’s record is USF’s poor record regarding the academic freedom of its own students. Genshaft was silent when USF decertified a pro-BDS student body referendum in 2013. The referendum, calling for USF to divest from companies complicit in human rights violations in occupied Palestinian territories, garnered more than 2,500 signatures en route to making it on the Spring 2013 election ballot. USF Office of the General Counsel, represented by USF attorney Joanne Adamchak, initially argued that the referendum could not be placed on the ballot since “the university does not take on political referendums.” But Students for Justice in Palestine argued in its press release that the Student Government “had previous referendums on the ballot which were political in nature as well,” citing both the Real Food and Health Care referendums as previous examples. USF legal counsel later shifted its stance, claiming that the referendum violated Florida statutes. In a controversial move, the student-run Election Rules Commission refused to certify the results, despite reaching the number of votes necessary.
Genshaft also has personal ties to Israel. According to the Jewish Press of Pinellas County, she has visited Israel at least 25 times, including a trip in December 2011 in which she, along with Florida Governor Rick Scott, formed a pact with Ben Gurion University. In 2013, she was presented the Tree of Life Award by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), another organization targeted by the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement. JNF has come under fire by the movement because of its involvement in of the destruction of Palestinian villages in 1948 and the subsequent planting of forests to “greenwash” the remnants. Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate and South African anti-apartheid activist alongside Nelson Mandela, urged Johannesburg University to boycott Ben Gurion University in 2010. He said: “by maintaining links to both the Israeli Defense Forces and the arms industry, BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation.”
But Rabbi Rosenthal does not believe Genshaft’s comments, considering her holdings and relations, portray a conflict of interest.
“Knowing President Genshaft, she bleeds green and gold,” said Rosenthal. “She wants what’s best for the university.”
Genshaft’s office and USF’s media contacts have declined to comment on the issue.
“We have no further information to share at this time,” responded Lara Wade, USF’s primary media contact.