Posted by Suher Adi on March 26, 2019 in Blog

Whether it is professors being targeted for their support of or work on Palestine, k-12 teachers getting attacked for their use of the Arab World Studies Notebook, or student government association representatives getting harassed for passing pro-Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolutions, Palestine is one of the most contentious topics in the current US educational climate. One recent example of this phenomenon occurred at Pitzer College, a small liberal arts school in Claremont, California. Pitzer is currently embroiled in a debate over the right to disassociate from an Israeli university in an effort to defend human rights. In 2017, Israel passed Amendment 27 to the Entry into Israel Law, which enables the state to prevent foreigners who support BDS from entering the country. Even before the passage of this law, Arab Americans have faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and politics when attempting to enter Israel and Palestine for decades.

The discrimination faced by Arab Americans or those perceived to be Arab when crossing any Israeli border or checkpoint has been a longstanding issue. People are subjected to long searches, interrogations because of their names or physical appearance, and various levels of unnecessary harassment. Within the West Bank alone, there are 98 checkpoints where Palestinians are frequently detained, harassed, and humiliated. In just October of last year, after arriving in Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Palestinian-American student Lara Alqasem was detained and denied entry to Israel because of her association with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and BDS. Officials identified her political support by entering her name into the right-wing website the Canary Mission, which tracks pro-Palestinian students and professors. Israeli officials use this website to identify and deny entry to activists who support Palestine. The issue has even affected prominent human rights activists like Katherine Franke and Vincent Warren, who were detained and sent back to New York for their involvement with BDS.

These discriminatory policies underscored the recent vote of Pitzer’s College Council to suspend a study abroad program with Haifa University until the state of Israel ends discrimination at the border and grants visas for individuals to participate in exchanges with Palestinian universities. Current Israeli laws and policies affect the ability for all Pitzer students to equally participate in this program, since those of Arab heritage, and their allies who engage in BDS, would risk being denied entry. It was in the spirit of equality that the Pitzer college staff voted to suspend the program, passing this resolution with a 67-28 majority. Just hours after the resolution passed, the College President Melvin Oliver vetoed the measure in a historic move.

Ironically enough, Oliver argues that the resolution would curtail the academic freedom of students who wish to study at the University of Haifa. Furthermore, he argues that it would cause the college to take an expressly political position, which threatens the college’s standing as an educational institution. If anything, in ignoring this majority vote, Oliver himself is undermining the academic freedom of Pitzer’s professors to act on their legitimate concerns about discrimination and unequal access to education. Students, faculty, and staff who supported the resolution rightfully feel as though their voice has been stifled, but remain committed to their cause. Dr. James Zogby wrote a letter to the Pitzer community commending their decision to fight for equality of educational opportunity. The debate at Pitzer College has drawn outside attention, with Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan tweeting her support of the resolution.

Arab American Institute (AAI) supports the civil and political right of individuals to support BDS. We are aware not only of attacks on academic freedom, but also on the First Amendment, by those who seek to obstruct any attempt at accountability for Israel’s violations of basic rights. AAI is working alongside our partners to ensure that all members of campus communities across this country are able to express their First Amendment-protected speech. We support those at Pitzer who continue to demand that study abroad opportunities are open to all students, regardless of their ethnicity, national origin, or political views at every institution across the country.

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