UCLA students step up protests against anti-Israel historian charged with sexual harassment
UCLA students vowed to resume their protests Wednesday (1/11) against Gabriel Piterberg, an Israel-educated historian, over charges by two of his women students of repeated sexual harassment.
Piterberg, a graduate of Tel Aviv University who served in the Israeli army, has long been a controversial figure in the academic world, not for his personal behavior but for his outspoken hostility toward the State of Israel and its leaders.
When Piterberg appeared at his Monday morning (1/9) class, he was greeted by chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Piterberg has got to go,” according to the Daily Bruin student newspaper and members of Bruins Against Sexual Harassment.
In his classroom, someone had written, in capital letters, on the blackboard “IF A TENURED PROFESSOR SEXUALLY ASSAULTS HIS OWN STUDENTS IT’S ABUSE OF POWER.”
Some 20 minutes after the start of the class a student stood up and left, after which Piterberg dismissed the other students and also cancelled his scheduled afternoon class. Protestors announced they would return and continue their disruptions during Piterberg’s scheduled Wednesday classes.
In 2013, the two female graduate students accused Piterberg, 61, of harassing them over many years by making sexual comments, pressing himself against their bodies and forcing his tongue into their mouth, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Piterberg, who has declined all requests for interviews, has formally denied the charges, but in a 2014 settlement with the UCLA administration he accepted a $3,000 fine, a suspension without pay for one quarter and agreed to attend a training course against sexual harassment.
He was also removed from his position as director of the Gustav von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA and was forbidden to meet individually with students except during office hours, and then only if the door remained open.
The settlement did not prevent Piterberg’s return to his teaching post, triggering widespread complaints against the university’s “leniency” in the case. A group of 38 history professors sent a letter to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, which stated, in part, “Students, staff and faculty must contend with the presence of an admitted harasser in our midst,” and noted that Piterberg had expressed no remorse for his actions or for the damage he had inflicted on the history department.
According to his resume, Piterberg served in the Israeli army in the early 1980s, and saw action against forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in southern Lebanon.
He was born in Buenos Aires but grew up in Israel. After his army discharge, he studied and received academic degrees – all with highest honors – from Tel Aviv University in Middle East history and political science, and a Ph.D. degree from Oxford University, where his research focused on the history of the Ottoman Empire.
Subsequently, he taught at England’s University of Durham and at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. In 1999, he joined the UCLA history faculty, advanced to full professor in 2008, and was named director of the UCLA Near East studies center in 2013.
At seminars and in specialized scholarly publications, Piterberg early on earned a reputation as an unrelenting critic of the creation and existence of Israel.
Academics are loath to criticize colleagues for their opinions, however offensive. An exception at UCLA has been Judea Pearl. He is professor of computer science, director of its Cognitive Systems Laboratory and considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on artificial intelligence.
He and his wife Ruth are also co-founders of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, created in memory of their son, a journalist murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002.
Judea Pearl has shown no reluctance to express his abhorrence of Piterberg’s views. He believes Piterberg’s “scholarly” contributions can be summed up as “bash Israel as viciously as you can, someone might listen and take it seriously.”
Pearl added that “Piterberg belongs to a group of extreme left so-called ‘historians,’ who see their role as the re-interpretation of history to fit their political agenda.
“His agenda is to malign Zionism…which he sees as an organic part of ‘white settler colonialism,’ the 19th century effort by European powers to create societies in their own image by dispossessing the indigenous people…He even attributes Nazi origins and Nazi ideologies to most Zionist leaders.”
Pearl believes that Piterberg has greatly damaged UCLA and its history department by trying to legitimatize anti-Israel movements on campus and by “demoralizing Jewish students by proving that the (UCLA) administration cannot get the idea that Zionophobia is at least as immoral as Islamophobia.”
Asked what might have turned Piterberg from an Israeli soldier and brilliant student into a bitter foe of the Jewish state, Pearl said he was at a loss for an explanation.