On March 14, the governing council of Pitzer College, where I teach, voted 67-28 in favor of suspending the college’s study abroad program at the University of Haifa. Within three hours, Pitzer president Melvin Oliver vetoed this suspension. For Pitzer staff, students, and faculty, this is a serious matter, as the president’s actions disrespect and harm the College’s system of democratic shared governance. For the several million persons who live in Palestine and Israel, the implications are even worse. To understand why this is so, one must face honestly the status quo in the region and the implications, respectively, of the two plausible outcomes of Israel’s election on April 9.
To start, the status quo is a stalemate; for Palestinians, an oppressive stalemate.
In Gaza, Palestinians live under a blockade, a siege really, with a reported unemployment rate of more than 40% and one of the highest population densities in the world; poverty is endemic, with a large majority of Gazan Palestinians surviving on aid provided by the United Nations. Put simply, for its nearly two million inhabitants, Gaza today is an open-air prison. Starting last spring, weekly protests at the separation fence with Israel, in pursuit of freedom of movement for Gazans, have been met by the use of deadly force by the Israeli state. In Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s words: “This is a massacre. I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such. No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protestors. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else.”
The West Bank’s oppression takes a different form. There, Palestinian lives and society are fragmented by illegal settlements and a baroque network of barrier walls and checkpoints, with Palestinians required to use roads that wind circuitously around both the settlements and the walls. The result for Palestinians is that a trip by car that should take no more than 20 minutes, to visit a sick relative perhaps, can easily take several hours and, on any given day, may well be thwarted by the whim of a teenage soldier—even as settlers speed into Israel on roads that are free of checkpoints and off-limits to Palestinians. It is not rare but common, moreover, for Palestinian households to be able to recall a night when all of their members were roused from sleep by the forcible entry of Israeli soldiers into their home. Israeli soldiers similarly enter Palestinian universities without notice, and every Palestinian campus bears graves of students killed by the soldiers on the campus itself.
Despite this awful status quo, Jewish Israeli society is today largely indifferent to, and increasingly unknowing about, the oppression the Israeli state inflicts on Palestinians. Thus, while Palestinians are eager for negotiations, as anyone who visits Palestine and listens will learn, in 2019 Palestinians have no negotiating partner—and this has been true for a great many years. Even worse, by supporting ever increasing numbers of illegal settlers in the West Bank, the Israeli state has eroded any prospect for peace based on the Oslo “two-state” model.
In response to this dreadful situation, the current Israeli election offers but two possible policy outcomes: more of the same and far worse. The opposition “Blue and White” alliance is committed to maintaining this status quo, as if armed oppression can be continued indefinitely or judged to be anything other than an ethical travesty—or, let me say it, anything other than a betrayal of Jewish ethics. The opposition alliance has no plans for negotiations, none for peace, and none for justice. Its clearest pledge is that no Palestinian or Arab citizens of Israel will be brought into its government: its clearest stance is, in short, a commitment to racism. As for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s electoral alliance, its candidates talk brazenly of annexing the West Bank—a project given new impetus by Donald Trump’s recent pronouncement that it is time for the U.S. to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. And since these same Israeli politicians are unequivocal that Israel must have a Jewish majority, the proposed annexation of the West Bank portends ethnic cleansing, even genocide.
Given all of this, from where can positive change plausibly emerge? On this crucial question, Palestinian civil society groups are clear eyed. They know that Israel’s overwhelming superiority in force means that their struggle for freedom and equality requires support from social justice allies elsewhere and particularly from those in the United States, given that the U.S. funds and arms the Occupation. Thus, from early in this century, Palestinian civil society groups have asked persons of conscience throughout the world to suspend business as usual with the Israeli state and its institutions, as long as the oppression of Palestinians continues. It is to this larger social justice project that Pitzer College’s suspension of the Haifa would have contributed, absent the president’s veto. It was, let us recall, by just such means—and specifically by boycotts, divestments, and sanctions—that social justice allies in the U.S. and elsewhere gave crucial support to the African National Congress’s struggle to end South African apartheid.
What at this moment offers particular cause for hope that such measures can make a positive difference in the Palestinian struggle for justice and peace is that opposition to the oppression of Palestinians is, for the first time, being voiced in U.S. electoral politics. Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib have all broken the silence on the suffering inflicted on Palestinians by the Israeli state, and Bernie Sanders has added his voice, releasing a new campaign ad stating that Sanders opposes “apartheid-like conditions in Palestine.” In addition, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke all announced that they (like Sanders) would not speak at this year’s AIPAC conference.
No one thinks the path forward, once real negotiations start, will be easy or certain. But there is simply no other plausible way to get serious negotiations started. And if serious negotiations do commence, that will increase prospects for interim measures to relieve the suffering of Palestinians, in advance of a full negotiated peace. It is, moreover, just such incremental reforms, ending Israeli policies that discriminate on the basis of race and political speech in support of Palestinian rights, that Pitzer’s motion to suspend its Haifa program calls for.
President Oliver’s veto clearly harms Pitzer College itself, but its consequences for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis are far worse, as it blocks a material contribution to expanding the possibility of justice and peace for all in Palestine and Israel. This veto must then be resisted, relentlessly.
To sign a petition demanding that the veto be overturned, click here.