Fighting The Academic Boycott At The Grassroots


Ron Robin is president of the University of Haifa and recently assumed the chairmanship of the Committee of University Heads of Israel, a post from which he will serve as the leading voice for Israel’s academic community on the issue of countering the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Along with the cultural boycott of Israel by some high-profile performers, the academic boycott generates headlines but has not led to substantial victories in isolating Israel’s academic institutions. The Jewish Week caught up with him last week.

Q: Haifa is known as the city of coexistence in northern Israel because it has a substantial Arab minority. But some faculty and students at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., have decided to launch a campaign to suspend the school’s Israel Study Abroad program. Why are they targeting you?

A: They are picking on us because we spoil the analysis that we are an apartheid state. There is no better example of how specious the claim is than the city of Haifa and the University of Haifa. They want to wipe us off the face of the map and not recognize that there are Jews and Arabs who are living together in this city peacefully.

Those who support suspension of the program claim they are doing so in support of Palestinian rights and to protest Israel’s visa and immigration policies that they claim restrict the ability of all students to study abroad. Are there such restrictions?

The policies are no different from those that normally exist in most Western countries.

Do you believe those wishing to suspend the Israel Study Abroad program are doing so because of the BDS movement against Israel?

Absolutely. It is all part of the larger BDS movement that demonizes Israel and places us in a category all our own.

There have now been calls to oust the college’s president, Melvin L. Oliver, for his refusal to cancel the program. Have you spoken with him?

I speak with him often. He is adamantly against this move. He is a supporter of academic freedom. This is an issue of academic freedom and he will not bow to this attempt to contravene basic tenets of freedom of speech. He is still there and in control and sticking by his principles.

How many students do you get from Pitzer College’s Study Abroad program?

We have not gotten a lot of students [and] our relationship is more than a decade old. … The numbers are very small — miniscule. But now we have geared up to bring large groups of students. We have decided to work with the president of the college to increase that number. We are working on a plan now and expect to implement it in the next semester. From a handful we hope to get about at least 20 students.

How will you go about trying to increase the number of students in the Israel Study Abroad Program?

We’ll be reaching out to students who are curious. There are many students who are very curious after having witnessed this particular incident. We are trying to affect students who are not necessarily Jewish but who have an interest in world politics. It is starting to resonate and we have to turn it into a significantly larger program than it has been to this stage.

What has been the impact of the BDS campaign on other schools in Israel?

People are under pressure from BDS, but to the degree it has affected these Study Abroad programs I’m not sure. [A department at NYU, for example, has pressured the university to boycott its study abroad program in Tel Aviv, to no avail.]

A new United Nations report finds that the objectives, activities and effects of the BDS movement are fundamentally anti-Semitic. Are you surprised?

Obviously there are elements of anti-Semitism involved, and I think it is important for anyone coming over to recognize that. We are not a perfect country, and we don’t want anyone to assume we are self-righteous. What we do try to do is emphasize the fundamental engines for allowing minority students to enter the middle class in Israeli society. Any attempt to hurt universities ultimately affects those who need us most: those on the margins of societies — Jews from development towns and Arabs from the north. They need us and BDS is targeting these people.

Does your university have many Arab students?

Our university is 35 percent Arab, and any boycott of us is against our student body.

The U.N. report recommends that the secretary-general “should consider appointing a senior-level focal point in the Office of the U.N. Secretary-General with the responsibility of engaging with Jewish communities worldwide, as well as monitoring anti-Semitism.” What is your reaction?

Any international organization that defines BDS as a movement that is detrimental to peace in the Middle East I would embrace.

Do you agree with the policy of Kenneth Marcus, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, who is waging a years-long campaign to delegitimize and defund Middle East studies programs that he believes are rife with anti-Israel bias?

I think the best move is for Israeli universities to confront head-on the purpose of BDS. When it comes from the grassroots, it has the most potent effect — and that is more important than any moves by government officials. We need to confront BDS activities, and it should  not only be up to governments to tackle this problem.