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Pitzer College battle over suspending Israel study program shows divide on the left over BDS

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Last Thursday, Pitzer College’s governing council took a historic vote to suspend a program of study at the University of Haifa because of Israel’s discriminatory policies. And just three hours later that resolution was vetoed, emphatically, by the college president.

I am told that President Melvin Oliver’s veto is now roiling the small progressive college in Claremont, California. Pitzer presidents have never vetoed a College Council resolution before, per the press. Pitzer prides itself on democratic governance, giving students and staff a voice in school policies. The vote to suspend the program was overwhelming, 67-28; and the voters comprised nearly 60 faculty, about 35 students, and some 10 staff too.

Many are reportedly angry about the veto, and students have circulated a petition condemning Oliver that has gotten several hundred signatures nationwide, some with real throw-weight.

The resolution said the college should not work “in countries with policies that restrict entry on the basis of either (a) legally protected political speech or (b) race or ancestry.” It cited Israeli policies scrutinizing visitors of Palestinian ancestry and barring those who support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

The resolution had wide support from the Palestinian solidarity community. Here is the warm salute from PACBI to the Council for honorably meeting a moral challenge. Here is the endorsement the measure got from Rep. Rashida Tlaib on March 12 on twitter.

Rashida Tlaib expresses support for the Pitzer College resolution to end the Haifa University program. Posted by PACBI on March 12.

President Oliver’s swift veto statement justifying his move is very interesting. It’s tempting to read donors into his comment that he discussed the matter with “faculty, trustees, students, parents and a range of other constituents.” After all, donors always play a role in these scandals.

But the more significant comments from Oliver contain near rage that the measure is on the progressive fringe, and will give Pitzer a bad reputation for embracing a campaign that the liberal mainstream regards as anti-Semitic.

Look at the fear in these remarks:

The recommendation would effectively cause the College… to take an unavoidably political position on one of the most controversial issues of our time…

Some will say that I am taking my own position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in choosing not to implement the recommendation of the College Council. I am not. Instead, I am refusing to permit Pitzer College to take a position that I believe will only harm the College.

Oliver all but says the measure is anti-Semitic, or people will think it is!

By singling out Israel, the recommendation itself is prejudiced… The reputational harm to the College would be irreparable and as president of this institution, I cannot permit that to happen.

The national climate in which leading Democrats have maligned BDS surely affected Oliver, says Daniel Segal, the history and anthropology professor who has been the leader of the initiative to end the program. “If there’s one radical issue that’s even more taboo than any other, it’s this.”

But Oliver’s putting his finger to the wind won’t go down well with the Pitzer faculty and student body. The Students for Justice in Palestine chapter that Dan Segal advises has pushed the question again and again. Leading Pitzer faculty joined Segal to back the suspension; and the faculty’s executive committee is angered by Oliver’s failure to follow procedure by consulting with it before he issued his veto.

Oliver’s veto would seem to represent the mainstream’s angry rejection of the progressive left in American political life on this issue. The divide we see at every level– and among Jews. The opposition to the resolution was led by senior Jewish faculty. But other Jewish faculty spearheaded the resolution, and more and more Jewish students are joining Muslims and Arabs on the SJP, Segal says.

Pitzer is now on spring break, but Segal reports that the mood on campus is “very raw.”

Israel/Palestine is now at the center of the school’s concerns. It has gotten there through years of activist organizing; many students and faculty were compelled to explore the question in the belief that they could play a part in making school policy. Now they’ve been rejected, students have circulated a petition condemning the veto and some are evidently considering taking a no-confidence vote on President Oliver’s leadership.

Pitzer has been a leader on progressive issues in the past. The College Council barred the ROTC from campus because it discriminated against LGBT recruits back in the 90s. It got rid of the SATs as a requirement for admission because standardized tests are racially biased, Segal says. The college stood by Angela Davis’s hiring as an instructor in 1975 when she was considered way too radical for the lib-left.

So Pitzer represents the edge of progressive institutional discourse on Israel Palestine, the battleline right now when only two members of Congress can say they support BDS. The good news is that the desire to end the relationship with University of Haifa has not gone away; and many on the California campus have come to see Israel’s discriminatory policies as their cause.

P.S. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fine report up on the matter.

Here is Diane Shammas’s strong post of last November responding to President Oliver’s earlier rejection of a faculty vote to suspend the Haifa program. She addressed his argument: Why are you singling out Israel, and not China?

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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21 Responses

  1. Rusty Pipes on March 18, 2019, 3:30 pm

    One of a college President’s main responsibilities (often touted as the measure of success in office), is fundraising. Pitzer may be on the Progressive edge, but there are others further left — like Hampshire. It will not be lost on many college Presidents that Hampshire decided to implement BDS and it is now in severe economic crisis. Whether those two events are directly linked or not, other Presidents may become even more skittish.

    • JustJessetr on March 19, 2019, 7:09 am

      The two are not linked because Hampshire college did not boycott Israel. The administration emphatically denied any boycott and said that anyone who claims that their actions could be viewed as a boycott were wrong.

  2. ckg on March 18, 2019, 3:53 pm

    The opposition was well funded. It seems like every day for the week or two I logged into Facebook I would be greeted with an ad from the “Israel on Campus Coalition” asking me to sign a petition in opposition to the campaign to end the Pitzer/Haifa program. I am not an alumnus so I don’t know why I was targeted.

  3. echinococcus on March 19, 2019, 1:53 am

    This ludicrous illusion about support for Palestinian resistance and freedom having anything to do with “progressive” (where “progressive” includes a lot of the worst warmongers and supporters of Empire) is extremely misleading. There is no need to be “progressive” (always between quotes) to support Palestinian freedom, and many social/economic conservative people who place themselves on the so-called right are stout supporters of Palestinian liberation. A lot of self-appointed “progressive” Dims and liberals are not! Unless you get around to consider an issue on its own merits only, you’ll continue repelling potential allies and singing to your own little, insignificant choir.

    Who knows, maybe this is the undeclared objective…

    • punterweger on March 19, 2019, 10:40 am

      echinococcus: “many social/economic conservative people who place themselves on the so-called right are stout supporters of Palestinian liberation. ”

      Just for the record would you name a few.

      • Mooser on March 19, 2019, 11:56 am

        “Just for the record would you name a few.”

        Yes, “Echin”, that would be very helpful.

      • echinococcus on March 19, 2019, 5:26 pm

        Punterweger and Mooser demonstrating the full ignorance, lack of curiosity and political tribalsim of sweetwater liberals. Never heard of the American Conservative,, Ron Paul &Co., or even the legions of religious Moslems (whom they praise every day with their identity politics pandering), died-in-the-wool reactionaries every one of them but fully on board against Zionist invasion and at least as staunchly supportive of Palestinian resistance as the Imperial Dim liberaloids, who just like the frank reactionaries continue to support the Empire –while making noises favorable to Palestinian rights. Where is the difference?

      • RoHa on March 19, 2019, 11:01 pm

        “died-in-the-wool reactionaries every one of them”

        Comfortable way to go. But many of them are still alive, and definitely dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries.

      • echinococcus on March 20, 2019, 12:23 am


        That dye won’t run off me for the rest of my life.

      • pjdude on April 10, 2019, 1:00 am

        ron paul is a huge supporter of israel. the american conservative gushes over israel if criticizes its worst excesses, or precisely what accuse progressives of. is full of antisemtic tropes and peddles in far right bs, it advocates for the palestinains inso far has it promotes antisemitism. so 1 out of 4 isn’t that bad.

      • echinococcus on April 10, 2019, 9:46 am


        Are you being deliberately ridiculous? Huge supporter?

        Very strongly opposed to all US wars on behalf of the Zionists. Certainly opposed to all financial, military and diplomatic aid to the Zionists. Against any meddling to favor the Zionists against the Palestinians. Looks like you don’t read people you don’t like.

        Disclaimer: I’ll support Pauul only as far as he opposes Empire and war and no further –but that is absolutely the only problem now. Better that than any Empire loyalists like the Dims and the Pukes, who support war and Empire to the hilt (even when some of them here make noises sympathetic to some Palestinians). Our very own Weiss was a supporter of the rape of Libya, many here are on the USraelian side in the war against Syria –as opposed to Dr. Paul. Given that our only objective as supporters of Palestinian resistance is to unite a maximum of people to destroy the Zionists, of course even these imperialism supporters are welcome to help. Similarly, if there were anything like “antisemites” I would welcome them to it, too. “Antisemites”, or anti-King-Zog, or any similar unrelated movements are not the problem of the enemies of Zionism

        The problem, though, is that “antisemitism”, especially in the US, is a propaganda construct for boobies. Either it is opposition to “Jews” as a group because of some characteristic at birth (in this simple case the bare fact of being born from nominally Jewish parent(s)) in which case it is racism pure and simple, where you cannot give a cogent explanation why you single out just that racism by name; or then it is opposition to some acquired characteristic like religion or adherence to some historically religion-defined loyalties, in which case it is totally legitimate to question and discuss anything. I keep repeating that and never get a satisfactory response. There is no “Jewish” ethnicity or people and no “Jewish” character outside religion: if “antisemitism” is opposition to some religion, I don’t see the problem.

      • Keith on April 10, 2019, 4:47 pm

        ECHINOCOCCUS- “Disclaimer: I’ll support Pauul only as far as he opposes Empire and war and no further….”

        Agreed! Two relevant points. Empire and militarism are the root causes of so many other problems – including Patriarchy and anti-feminism – that eliminating empire is an essential element in dealing with a whole myriad of problems. Also, the degree to which nowadays political discourse is less concerned with what people do and say than with the labels which have been attached to them. Phil continues to say that Jews are progressive because they overwhelmingly vote Democratic even though the Democrats have become the voice of militarism and empire. Conservatives and “right wing” populists reviled based upon the label alone even though many of these “right wing” groups are opposed to militarism and empire and neoliberal globalization. The bottom line is that the party of Roosevelt died with the Clintons and it is long past time that some folks dealt with that reality and with the actual policies and actions of people rather than the label which the manipulative media has attached to them.

    • RoHa on March 20, 2019, 12:21 am

      I agree, Echi. From my old-fashioned Socialist point of view, my assessment is that some of the causes dear to the “progressives” are damaging and dangerous, some confused, if not downright self contradictory, and some are just damned silly.
      And usually expressed in the most abominable prose.
      I suspect that tagging the label “progressive” on the Palestinian cause may put off people who simply do not want to be associated with pseudo-left folly. Much better to treat it on its own merits.

  4. hophmi on March 19, 2019, 9:52 am

    BDS as a tool of white supremacy. This antisemitic act will result in a justifiable loss in giving, which will reduce the ability of disadvantaged students to attend Pitzer. And now we have the specter of white radical BDSers like Phil making nasty remarks about one of the country’s strongest African-American college Presidents in support of the overwhelmingly white faculty.

    • Talkback on March 19, 2019, 10:12 am

      hophmi: “BDS as a tool of white supremacy.”

      Nope. BDS as a tool against Jewish supremacy which incudes white Jewish sumpremacy. Or are you refering to the “younger Jewish faculty spearheaded the resolution, and more and more Jewish students are joining”?

      hophmi: “This antisemitic act …”

      Nothing antisemitic about it. Jews as such were not defamed. And again, “younger Jewish faculty spearheaded the resolution, and more and more Jewish students are joining Muslims and Arabs on the SJP …”

      Your comment is simply ridiculous. Very unusual. LOL.

      • Mooser on March 20, 2019, 11:49 am

        ” Phil making nasty remarks about one of the country’s strongest African-American college Presidents in support of the overwhelmingly white faculty.” “Hophmi”

        “Why does anyone care about someone who spent years as a Western poster child for the worst Communist regimes?”

    • eljay on March 19, 2019, 10:16 am

      || hophmi: BDS as a tool of white supremacy. This antisemitic act … ||

      Anti-Semitism as a tool of Zionism: Zionists routinely and anti-Semitically conflate Israel with all Jews and all Jews with Israel.

      Destructive accusations of anti-Semitism as a tool of Zionism: Having anti-Semitically conflated Israel with all Jews and all Jews with Israel, Zionists then accuse and smear with destructive accusations of anti-Semitism people who oppose or denounce Israel’s past and on-going (war) crimes and other acts of injustice and immorality.

  5. ritzl on March 20, 2019, 2:22 am

    I don’t know right or wrong on this. But personally, instead of boycotting they should go, but only if someone would INSIST that part of this trip be to spend a day with a Palestinian family on Shuhada Street in Hebron.

    The full experience. Come back and report (and be informed for life) on the full Jim Crow experience.

    • Citizen on March 23, 2019, 10:56 am

      I wonder what the Pitzer students study subjects are at the University of Haifa. I doubt it would include a day in the life of Shuhada Street. I wonder how closely monitored the Pitzer students are while studying at U of Haifa?

      • Citizen on March 23, 2019, 11:17 am

        I see some of the subjects are language and Holocaust, including student trips to Poland for the latter.

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