Al Jazeera: Behind the scenes with Israel's campus lobby
University administrators squash pro-Palestinian actions
Behind the scenes with Israel's campus lobby
By Yaman Salahi, September 26, 2011
Over the past year, I have obtained public records that shed light on how the Israel lobby works on US campuses. At UC Berkeley, my alma mater, as well as at UC Hastings School of Law, the documents reveal how the Israel lobby pressures university administrators to interfere with campus activity - both academic and political - that addresses Israel's policies towards and treatment of the Palestinian people.
My requests were made in the shadow of two high-profile backlash campaigns to counter events at UC Berkeley and UC Hastings School of Law. In March 2011, esteemed legal academics and practitioners attended a conference called "Litigating Palestine" at UC Hastings School of Law.
On the eve of the conference, the UC Hastings Board of Directors voted in a closed emergency meeting to withdraw its sponsorship of the event without explanation. Though the conference was permitted to proceed, the Dean of the Law School was asked not to give opening remarks as planned.
A year earlier, a historic decision by UC Berkeley's student government to divest from companies profiting from Israeli human rights violations and war crimes and occupation was overturned in response to similar pressure. Though the bill initially passed with a 16-4 majority, the student body president vetoed it and, after weeks of intense lobbying, the student senate was one vote short of overcoming the veto.
Though the fact of lobby pressure is a matter of common knowledge, it requires demystification. The records I obtained tend to reveal some of the ways in which the lobby actually applies its pressure. They contain valuable lessons for those who wish to defeat it. I draw several hypotheses from these documents.
Foremost among them is the proposition that the lobby's influence stems primarily from the fact that, despite public criticism, it is largely uncontested by organised campaigns. Subject to intense pressure, university administrators often make decisions they do not like because they feel they have no other choice.
No Arab, Muslim, or progressive Jewish voices
In hundreds of pages I obtained from UC Berkeley, UC office of the president, and UC Hastings School of Law, I saw communications between the highest level university administrators - people who students can rarely meet or address - and lobbyists in Washington DC at the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organisation of America, and more.
Yet not a single letter came to these administrators on issues like UC Berkeley's divestment campaign or the UC Hastings' conference from similarly high-profile national community organisations like the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Arab American Institute, the Council for American-Islamic Relations, or the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
As a result, university administrators were presented with a one-sided view and the impression that the only organised feedback was negative. In both cases, they ultimately adopted the view in front of them, caving into pressure on policy decisions without making an effort to solicit the input of other groups.
Where issues were clearly important not only to Jews but also to Arabs, Muslims, and others, administrators only took into consideration the position represented by the Israel lobby. But there is no rational reason why one group's perspective should be privileged over the others.
Israeli government on US campuses
In some cases, the relationship was inappropriately cozy. On March 18, 2010, hours after the student government passed the divestment initiative at UC Berkeley, the Israeli consul in Northern California had called the chancellor's office to request a meeting.
A meeting was not possible at the time, but the chancellor's office faxed a letter to Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor the same day and a direct phone call was arranged the next day. In the letter, written in Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's name and addressed to Akiva Tor, the university distanced itself from the student government's decision and conveyed a willingness to express its opposition to any concerned party.
The next day, March 19, 2010, UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof wrote to Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard and Dean of Equity and Inclusion Gibor Basri: "The consulate is quite pleased with this approach and understands that issuing a proactive statement to the press at this point would only serve to catalyse coverage that, so far, is non-existent in mainstream media."
Mogulof's email gives the impression that the chancellor's office adopted a media strategy of silence in consultation with the Israeli consul general. Their mutual silence on the matter was aimed at reducing the likelihood that the national press would cover the historic 16-4 vote by UC Berkeley's student government to divest from twocompanies due to Israel's violations of international law.
Power, not rational argument
But, overwhelmingly, the correspondence between third parties and university administrators was more mundane. Communication mainly took place in the form of phone calls, letters, and press advisories, consisting of little more than the expression of displeasure and a request for meetings or corrective action. Often, alumni sent messages threatening to withhold future gifts if corrective action was not taken.
The techniques are startling - not only in their simplicity (similar campaigns might be replicated by well-networked Arab, Muslim, and progressive Jewish organisations) - but also for their lack of sound argument.
Letters relied heavily on misrepresentations of the Israeli/Palestinian issue or the specific actions they attacked. Others, in equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, rely on logical fallacies and non sequitur. Many contained shocking undertones of racism, bigotry, and unfair ad hominem attacks. Yet they managed to persuade university administrators to take reactionary steps, not through the power of reason but by using power as reason.
At UC Hastings, for example, the campaign to stop the conference began when a member of the Hastings Foundation's Board of Advisors threatened to resign from her position if sponsorship of the conference was not withdrawn. She offered no fair criticism of the conference, but quickly organised a campaign of alumni to withhold support if action was not taken to stop the conference or withdraw sponsorship. Many letters came into UC Hastings, and they often provoked the concern of administrators even when the same administrators disliked the style and substance of their engagement.
The other overarching theme evident from these documents is that university administrators care more about third-party organisations and alumni than student opinion. Despite turnout of thousands of students at UC Berkeley's student government to support divestment, and only a fraction of that number in opposition, at no time were university administrators seriously engaging with supporters of the initiative. Instead, they gave their full attention to off-campus organisations.
Moreover, while grassroots organisations at UC Berkeley were focusing their efforts horizontally on the student government, the Israel lobby went over the heads of the student body directly to university administrators.
They knew administrators had a greater sense of responsibility to them than ordinary students, who do not feel the pressure of alumni anger and potential institutional instability. Perhaps they already knew these people were also their allies - Chancellor Birgeneau, for example, privately expressed support for the student body president's decision to veto the divestment resolution, despite publicly remaining neutral on the issue.
The effect of this divergence in strategy - focus on the grassroots versus focus on institutional engagement - is evident in the aftermath of Berkeley divestment. Palestine solidarity groups more or less ceased their engagement with the institution. In contrast, the Israel lobby continued the conversation for weeks afterwards.
Chancellor Birgeneau met with Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor on June 18, 2010, several months after the divestment resolution had already been overturned. The reason for the meeting was that "The Consul General feels strongly that the campus has not made an effort to work with the local Jewish community" on the issue of divestment.
Tor must not have thought that the local Jewish community included groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Kesher Enoshi, many of whose members, in addition to Israeli and Jewish members of Students for Justice in Palestine, supported the bid.
Chancellor Birgeneau was joined at the meeting by a team of the highest-level administrators, including three Vice Chancellors, an Associate Chancellor, a Dean, and a Director. Tor, for his part, led a delegation of the CEO of the Jewish Community Federation, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and the executive director of the Berkeley Hillel. Notably absent were any students.
I am aware of no similar meeting between Chancellor Birgeneau and off-campus individuals or organisations representing a pro-divestment viewpoint.
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