To the Pitzer College President: Palestinians are beyond fed up with American inaction

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Last month the Pitzer College faculty voted by four-to-one to suspend a study-abroad program with Haifa University, citing Israel’s official discrimination against Palestinian students and schools. A faculty-student council at the liberal arts college in Claremont, California, will vote on the measure next semester. Meantime, Pitzer President Melvin Oliver issued a statement that suspending the program would be “a major blow” to Pitzer’s reputation. “We will foolishly alienate a large percentage of our Jewish and non-Jewish constituents who see this very polarizing issue differently from the stance expressed in the faculty motion.” The vote has been covered by the Los Angeles Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Jewish wire services.  

December 14, 2018

Dear President Oliver,

I am writing you today as a Pitzer alum ‘75 in support of the Pitzer faculty’s decision to suspend the direct-enroll program at the University of Haifa in Israel. On December 1, 2018, your office emailed me a cover letter outlining the Pitzer faculty’s decision and attached your remarks, regarding this decision, to the Pitzer College Council. As cited in the Los Angeles Times’ article, the faculty’s argument for their decision is Israel’s “entry restrictions to students based on ancestry and/or political speech”, and [not]” granting visas for exchanges of Palestinian universities on a ‘fully equal basis’ to those it grants for exchanges to Israeli ones”. Your counter-argument, as delivered on November 30th to the Pitzer College Council, is that the faculty decision is a “repudiation of Pitzer’s educational mission”.

In reviewing Pitzer’s mission statement, which states, “Pitzer College produces engaged, socially responsible citizens of the world through an academically rigorous, interdisciplinary liberal arts education emphasizing social justice, intercultural understanding and environmental sensitivity”, I disagree that Pitzer faculty’s decision has violated these principles, Rather, in light of Israel’s brutal 70 year occupation of Palestine,  the faculty’s decision should be viewed as invoking a vision of social justice to urge Israel to relent on their exclusionary policies of barring Palestinians from entering Israeli universities and permitting exchange programs to Palestinian universities; all of which, I argue will do more to foster intercultural understanding and interaction among Israelis, Palestinians, and non-Palestinians.

My position is predicated upon the following:

1) My personal experiences in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Between the years of 2009 and 2013, the length of my stays in Gaza would last up to four months, and more recently, I revisited the Gaza Strip in 2017, three years after Israel’s catastrophic assault on Gaza in 2014. I assisted the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, examining  the effects of the Gaza siege and war trauma on Palestinian civilians, and taught American Ethnic Studies and research methods at the local university.

2) The discriminatory treatment that Israel has shown me. Each time I apply to COGAT, Israel’s defense arm for approval of  entry into Gaza and the West Bank, they have stated over the phone to me that I will have to wait for approval longer than other U.S. citizens as I have an Arab surname– even though I have passed every Israeli security check, which is the first step of them approving me, and my father and I were all born in the United States (my mother is US born of Swedish descent), this is Israel’s “normal” for US born citizens of Arab descent;

3) My scholarship is/has focused on the MENA region and its diaspora. In my youth I was exposed to the history and geopolitics of the Levant (As Sham) through my father’s first cousin, a Lebanese national who served not only as an ambassador to Iraq, Greece, and Germany, but also, as one of the chief negotiators leading the Arab League in the 1991 Madrid Talks, regarding Israel’s occupation of Lebanon and Palestine; and

4) My lifelong activism beginning at age 14, when as part of a civics class project I met in solidarity with the Delano grape boycott workers.

I will respond first to your burning question “Why Israel?”, in light of countries, like China, who have tortured, murdered, and imprisoned up to a million Tibetans, and are currently detaining a million Muslims in re-education camps. Yes, outside of Israel, I am aware of other countries’ war crimes, and social and political injustices. President Oliver, I protested in Islamabad against the U.S. drones in Pakistan, which inflicted death on a disproportionately higher number of civilians than Haqqani Taliban militants. In 2017, while on a three-week trekking trip in Myanmar, I met up with and challenged a UNESCO office director as to why there is silence in the country about the Rohingya, who are living in crowded camps behind a dense forest at the river’s edge. Yes, maybe sanctions should have been imposed on exchange programs in countries, such as China and Nepal. But, the U.S. also does not award a 38 billion defense aid package to China and Nepal as they do with Israel, so that they can maim, kill, and incarcerate Palestinians without due process of law— among a population of 4.3 million Palestinian refugees, a half of whom are children below the age of 18 years.

This year alone in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, there have been close to 31,000 Palestinians injured, and 278 Palestinian killed, as compared to 12 fatalities to Israeli citizens  (1 in Israel, and 11 in the Occupied Palestinian Territories) (OCHA, December 3, 2018). Palestinian fatalities and injuries are up 300% over 2017, which stems in part from the Israeli Defense Forces firing tear gas and live ammunition on the majority of peaceful protesters during the Great March of Return in Gaza. For almost 13 years Israel has imposed an air, land, and maritime siege over Gaza, maintaining a severe quota on foodstuffs, fuel, and building materials entering the Strip; in 2006 the senior adviser to Prime Minister Olmert, Dov Weisglass proclaimed that “the idea [of the blockade] was to put Palestinians on a diet, but not make them die of hunger”. Even if Israel justifies its blockade of  Gaza because it will safeguard Israeli national security—despite the fact President Carter, in monitoring the 2006 Palestinian elections, observed that they were “peaceful and orderly” and Hamas was fairly elected (The Carter Center, Jimmy Carter, 1/29/2006)—Israel, as an occupying power, is in violation to the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that protection of the civilian population of Occupied Territories against discrimination, all forms of violence, and despite war and occupation, to lead a normal life as possible in accordance with its own laws, culture, and traditions. This includes safeguarding the dignity and physical integrity of the civilians under occupation, prohibiting all forms of physical and mental ill-treatment and coercion, collective punishment, and reprisals against protected persons or property”.

President Oliver, your remarks hint at not impugning Israel for its war crimes and collective punishment of Palestinian civilians, who in Gaza are living in “an open-air prison”, and whose sole weapons of resistance consist of rocks, and in the case of only a few, hurling kite bombs when attacked on their side of the border for protesting the 12 year-old siege and denial of the right of return by one of the largest and most militarized armies in the world. The truth be told, the majority of Palestinians who I have witnessed in demonstrations employ peaceful forms of resistance.

If you still are not convinced by what I am relating to you, please allow me to indulge you with the other egregious actions of Israel sanctioned within their legal system, which deprive Palestinians of their human rights and dignity.

  • There are 65 racially discriminatory laws directly and indirectly against Palestinian citizens in Israel (or as Israel refers to them “Arab Israelis”), and Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories (West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem).
  • Ethnic cleansing: e.g, the removal and Judaization of Palestinian villages, and the appropriation of Palestinian historical and religious sites
  • Home evictions and demolitions, including recently, the planned demolition of the “Israeli” Bedouin community of Khan Al-Amar, extensively covered by the media. I also can show you a video that I took in a 2012 meeting with the Sheikh of Al-Arqib after one of its 100s pf home demolitions as well as photos of the home eviction of the Al-Kurd family in East Jerusalem, while Orthodox Jewish settlers were moving into the Al-Kurd property.
  • Cantonization of Palestinian villages (bantustans)
  • The enforcement of Israeli settler-only roads
  • The vertical planning of Jewish settlements on mountain tops above Palestinian villages situated in the valleys, indicating Jewish settler superiority over Palestinians
  • Denying Palestinians management of their water resources in the West Bank and Gaza. Ninety-percent of the water in Gaza is not potable, due to high salinity levels and Israel destroying all of Gaza’s sewage plants except one. Israel refuses to confer water rights to the Palestinian Authority, so that they can build new aquifers to de-salinate the water. One biology professor in Gaza referred to a ‘genocidal poisoning of the Palestinian people”, similar to what occurred in Flint, Michigan.
  • Palestinian students are segregated from Israeli students in the general public school system, and in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, Palestinian schools are unequal to Israeli schools.
  • Israel has constructed a separation wall in the West Bank that currently cuts off many Palestinian farmers’ access to their land
  • In the West Bank, the daily restriction of movement through multiple checkpoints.
  • The criminalization and incarceration of Palestinian minors without due process of law.
  • Severe electricity cuts in Gaza. When I visited in September 2017, Palestinians were only receiving two hours of electricity a day. Imagine a family having to decide between whether to use the 2 hours of electricity to bathe or to cook a meal.
  • Israel’s purposeful, economic de-development of Gaza since 1987 (See Sara Roy, 1987), e.g., severely limiting the quantities of produce that Palestinians can export outside of Gaza, resulting in a current unemployment rate of 71% among young Palestinians (GISHA UPDATES, 2018).
  • Environmental racism: indigenous olive trees are sacrosanct to the Palestinians, which line the hills of all the Levant. B’Tselem, a prominent Israeli human rights organization, has documented Jewish settlers burning and razing olive trees. I was present during one demonstration and took a video of the smoke from one of the IDF sound guns igniting an olive tree in which Palestinians, not the Israelis, called their fire department to extinguish the fire in order to save the tree. Environmentalists have pointed to the overgrowth of European trees, like conifers, which, as we see in the case of the U.S. with non-indigenous trees, are responsible for many of the wildfires throughout Israel.

President Oliver, in the plainest language I can convey to you. The Palestinian people are beyond fed up. Consider the unheard of suicide rates of Palestinian youth in Gaza, 80 suicides alone in January and February 2016, 160% higher than previous years (Middle East Monitor, 9/20/2017).  The Oslo Accords were a farce. In practice the Israelis ended up controlling all three areas of the West Bank (A, B, and C), resulting in the Palestinian Authority being little more than a Vichy-style government, never achieving full statehood. One of Israel’s political elites, Shlomo Ben-Ami admitted in his book “Scars of War and Wounds of Peace” that “Zionism was a national liberation movement” and a “movement of conquest, colonization and settlement” (of Palestine), and the end result: the NGO-ization of Palestine, reducing them to beggars on their own land.

The future is even bleaker, with the recent approval of the Jewish nationality law, officially christening Israel as an Apartheid state, in many critics’ minds, and dashing any hope of a two-state solution. Desmond Tutu once remarked that in visiting Gaza it was worse than South Africa, that in itself is an extremely strong statement.

When international governments, including our own, hesitate or refuse to do anything to pressure Israel to comply by international human rights law, we as citizens of the world must be proactive. You mention in your remarks that the faculty’s recent decision alienates trustees and students, but trends as reported by Pew Research (2016) show that millennials, Jewish and non-Jewish, are more likely to lean towards support of Palestine than Israel. People of color and those of Jewish heritage can relate to commonalities in their own ethno-histories, and have formed activists groups to join the Sisyphean struggle of bending the arc of justice where Palestinians can live with equal rights and citizenship just like Israeli Jews. To name a few, members of Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, Jewish Voice For Peace, and if Not Now. I am a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, and have spent quality time with them, and they are very attuned to their Jewish culture and religion. African American solidarity with the Arab/Palestinian cause has its earlier roots in the student activist group, SNCC, and Pan African movement, which as a point on their respective charters mentioned Palestine as an anti-imperialist struggle. This month the Vermont State Police and the Northampton, Massachusetts, police department pulled out from planned junkets to train with Israeli forces.

President Oliver, the time is overdue. I implore you to reconsider your position and stand by the faculty’s courageous decision to suspend the University of Haifa program until Israel 1) complies with allowing Palestinian students to enter their universities regardless of nationality and political speech—in light of Israel touting itself as the only democratic nation in the Middle East and honors free speech—and 2) allows exchange students into Palestinian universities. As it stands now, Pitzer students entering the University of Haifa program will only hear one point of view, that of the Israeli state. You can be sure that the point of view of Palestinian students, who do attend the University of Haifa, on such concerns as the occupation and unequal treatment of Palestinians, if they dare divulge it, will be subordinated. Only then, President Oliver, when entrance to universities in Israel are all inclusive, will Pitzer’s mission of social justice and intercultural education be genuinely realized.

I rest my case as a 43-year Pitzer alum (’75), and a history of generous donations to the college by my parents and myself. I will be available by phone or in person if you would like to talk further on this matter or my expertise in Palestine/Middle East/North Africa.

Diane Shammas, PhD

International and Intercultural Education

Urban Higher Education

Lecturer, Diversity Education, American Ethnic Studies, Research Methods and Research Writing

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duh., I went to Pitzer, I am Jewish, I support BDS, Pitzer’s president is a coward. No Jews I met at Pitzer were ok with Isreal’s behavior. -Shaun Baran, Class of 1990, Pitzer College…HI Talya

as if I wasnt worked up enuf after yelling at my elected representatives over S 720 here is THIS. Cardin’s staff should apologize to senator Warren’s staff for the beating I gave them yesterday over S 720. anyways, Pitzer’s College President is a COWARD, I am Jewish I went to… Read more »

senator warren has no position on S 720and senator Sandersis opposed, so we vote for Sanders and Senator warren can run the Texaco down the street, she is full of it and will never be a real advocate for me. she thinks she is us but us Mas constituents want… Read more »

Some good news from Canada: The Real News Network, Dec. 12/18 “Canadian Court Hands Important Victory to BDS Movement, Dec. 12, 2018” EXCERPTS: “A Canadian Court ruled that Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions activists were denied free speech and campaigning rights when the city of Montreal tore down their posters highlighting… Read more »

How much explanation does Pitzer’s president need. A kindergarten student can understand this. I have publicly called and asked for his resignation and called him today and told him so. Class of 1990 awaits his departure