The ethics of study abroad in Israel

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The outrage that has greeted University of Michigan’s John Cheney-Lippold, who politely declined to write a letter of reference for a student who wished to participate in a Study Abroad Program in Israel, is astonishingly hypocritical. Cheney-Lippold has been accused of anti-Semitism and of allowing his questionable personal political beliefs to deny a student her right to his support. Such accusations are wearyingly familiar, part of the arsenal that has been developed by Zionist pressure groups in recent years to defame and censor critics of the state of Israel, its apartheid structure and illegal occupation and settlement of Palestine. Once again, virulent and defamatory accusations of discrimination are being pumped out to distract attention from the facts that impel ethical decisions like Cheney-Lippold’s. Since in open debate, the facts about Israel’s ongoing violations of international laws and humanitarian norms weigh heavily against any effort to defend it, its advocates only recourse is to seek to silence the critics.

It’s important to emphasize that in the final analysis this is about facts and not about “personal beliefs”. With the appointment of Kenneth Marcus to the Department of Education, the fact-free universe of the Trump administration has now officially reached out its toxic grasp to strangle higher education. In no other universe than that of Zionist apologetics is criticism of a state tantamount to expression of hatred for a people. That is particularly true, ironically, of the Jewish people that has since the origins of Zionism included many who have honorably criticized and even fought against its racist ideologies in the name of a more all-embracing political ethics. That’s another fact obscured by the dim-witted conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

But even were the diversity of Jewish opinion improbably to succumb to Zionism’s racially totalizing claims, there would be still no reason to conflate criticism of Israel or Zionism with hatred of Jews as a people. Were there any doubt as to our responsibility to be anti-Zionist if, like Cheney-Lippold, we oppose on principle discrimination of any kind, reason enough would be Israel’s recent nation-state law. This law “makes discrimination constitutional” and effectively consolidates and endorses the more than sixty individual Israeli laws that already discriminated against its Palestinian citizens. This law alone should strip the veil from any pretense that Israel is or can be both a democracy and a state of and for the Jewish people.

But Study Abroad in Israel is itself another instance that should bring Israel’s discriminatory constitution into focus. Every Study Abroad program in Israel is discriminatory against significant numbers of our students and is therefore on its face in violation of our campus anti-discrimination and equal opportunity policies. Indeed, they violate the very civil rights that the Department of Education is charged with protecting.

According to the US State Department’s travel advisory, “Some U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim heritage (including Palestinian-Americans) have experienced significant difficulties and unequal and hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints. U.S. citizens who have traveled to Muslim countries or who are of Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim origin may face additional questioning by immigration and border authorities.” Numerous African American travelers have also reported discriminatory treatment on entry into Israel, in line with Israel’s amply documented discriminatory treatment of migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa.

Many of us have experienced such discriminatory treatment first hand or through the treatment of our students. One Palestinian-American PhD student whom I supervised sought to conduct research in occupied Palestine on Palestinian youth. Not only was she denied entry, but she was also banned by Israeli authorities from traveling to Palestine for five years, without explanation beyond the catch-all “security reasons”. This travel ban violated both her right to freedom of movement and her academic freedom: denied the right to freely conduct her research, she was obliged to completely re-conceive her dissertation project. Despite being informed of her case, the campus administration made no protest of what, in every other context, would have been seen as a flagrant violation of her rights as a student and scholar.

Such stories of denial of entry, harassment, intrusive and intimidating questioning are legion. The stories that are harder to document are those of all the students who have strong reasons to travel to and study in Palestine or Israel, but are silently deterred from doing so by Israel’s discriminatory immigration policies. They may be Muslim and wish to study a region of great importance to Islam; they may be Christian Palestinians, wishing to study in the Holy Land; they may be students committed to justice in Palestine, keen to study Palestinian conditions first hand, but afraid of being denied entry to Palestine—since Israel rigorously controls not only its own borders but those of the West Bank and Gaza that it has arbitrarily declared to be entry points to “Israel.” Their banning would be on account of their constitutionally protected political expression as members of organizations like SJP or JVP that Israel has now proscribed.

Such students’ fear of discriminatory treatment is justified. Even were the State Department’s warning not in place, they know that Israel has for many years wittingly or unwittingly made examples of US individuals, from University Presidents to undergraduates. Even before the passage of Israel’s draconian anti-BDS law, which singles people out on account of their political principles, numerous travelers faced various degrees of harassment, from denial of entry to intrusive interrogation.

In 2010, Donna Shalala, former US Secretary of Health and Human Services and formerly president of the University of Miami, was detained at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport and subjected to humiliating personal questions. Shalala faced this treatment because she has an Arab last name, having been born in the US to Lebanese immigrant parents. Not even the president of a university that sought to collaborate with Israeli institutions was safe from discrimination.

In 2013, Professor Kavita Khory, of Mount Holyoke College had signed up for a faculty study tour of Israel, sponsored by Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Such tours are the “cornerstone of the organization’s public diplomacy initiative and its program for Israel advocacy.” But Professor Khory was surprised that she alone of the group was asked to carry a separate identification document at all times – a “card” certifying that she had been “prescreened” by the Israeli Consulate in Boston. Professor Khory is a US citizen, but was born in Pakistan. In the end, she declined to go, rather than face such discrimination on the basis of her name and national origin.

Students might be aware of what happened to their peer, Abeer Afana, a 21-year-old Wayne State University student, when she tried to enter Israel in 2010 for a month-long program designed to examine conflict and cooperation among Israelis and Palestinians. Seven other students in her group were admitted, but this US citizen was denied, simply because of her Palestinian origins. Such incidents showcase Israel’s regular infringements on freedom of access to education and on the movement of Palestinians and others, including American students.

Israel, in other words, has a long history of discriminatory immigration practices that have, it must be stressed, little to do with legitimate security interests. Its policies, on the contrary, have everything to do with racial profiling of Muslims and Arabs and with preventing Palestinians and their families from returning, even just to visit their former homes from which they were ethnically cleansed, in 1948 or since. Recently, however, Israel has added to the categories of traveler subjected to discriminatory treatment persons who have engaged in what in the United States is constitutionally protected political expression. Persons recently banned from entry into Israel and subjected to extended interrogation on the grounds of their non-violent political activity have included members of Jewish Voice for Peace, a Columbia Professor of Law who works with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and a Professor Emeritus and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at UCSB.

Every one of these examples corroborates the US State Department’s advisory to travelers seeking entry into Israel. Under these circumstances, any Study Abroad program that sends students to Israel openly violates anti-discrimination and equal opportunity policies: some students can go freely and without fear, others have every reason for trepidation and hesitation about even applying for the program. Programs of Study Abroad in Israel do not and cannot guarantee equal access, nor can they protect a significant body of our students from discrimination and the disparate impact of Israeli policies. Certainly, as programs in which some students will not be able to participate because they belong to “protected categories” by religion, race or national origin, they violate the University of Michigan’s own Non-discrimination Policy, which prohibits discrimination “in employment, educational programs and activities, and admissions.”

This is to say nothing of the daily regime of restriction of movement that Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza face, or even of the discriminatory treatment faced by Palestinians who are Israeli citizens when they seek to leave or return to their country. Israel’s very existence is predicated on discrimination, as the new nation-state law merely affirmed: its persistence as a “Jewish state for a Jewish people”, the goal of Zionism, can have no other meaning and can be realized by nothing less than a systematic, legalized apparatus that elevates the status of one segment of its population at the expense of the rest. That is the very definition of apartheid.

Israel makes considerable public relations capital out of touting higher education opportunities. Publicity for these programs represents Israel as a normal, modern democracy with exciting intellectual opportunities for all. Yet beneath that façade, some students who look more deeply, or who just happen to be Arab or Muslim, will discover a deeply discriminatory state that separates both its subjects and its visitors on the basis of ethnic and religious origin. And the Israeli universities that host such programs are all deeply implicated in an occupation that routinely infringes on Palestinians’ right to education, from their development of the military and surveillance technologies that maintain the occupation to their occupation of formerly Palestinian land.

Under such circumstances, the stance taken by Professor Cheney-Lippold, of whom his attackers seek to make an intimidating example, is indeed exemplary. No professor and no institution should engage in furthering programs that so systematically violate our long-cherished equal-opportunity and anti-discrimination policies, inscribed both in federal law and campus codes. No professor should set the unethical example of collaborating with the efforts of an apartheid regime to whitewash its actual practices through such programs. On the contrary, US academics should do the right thing by following Professor Cheney-Lippold’s courageous example and refusing to participate in any institutional endorsement of study abroad in Israel.

For information on boycotting Study Abroad Programs in Israel, see the website of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, where you can endorse the call to boycott.

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The boycott-Israel movement is spreading in Michigan:

Bravo Professor John Cheney-Lippold! You did the right thing!! “Book on Israel’s deliberate maiming of Palestinians wins top academic prize” Middle East Monitor, September 17/18 “A US scholar has won a prestigious prize for a book which argues that Israel intentionally maims Palestinians under its control. “Rutgers University Professor Jasbir Puar was awarded the National Women’s Studies Association’s Alison Piepmeier Book Prize for ‘The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability.’ “Puar, a professor of… Read more »