November 15, 2019

Open Letters to Melvin Oliver, President of Pitzer College

From Rabbi John Moscowitz in Toronto

President Oliver,

I write you as a Pitzer graduate (1975) and as a Jew. I do so in sadness and disappointment— in response to the Pitzer faculty voting to cut off the college’s program in Haifa.

My two most important teachers at Pitzer were Lucian Marquis and Tom Hayden. I was close to both, not just while in Claremont, but to the end of each of their lives. I would speak with each about my love of Israel, including with Tom as he was dying two years ago.

Interestingly, Tom, the Irish Catholic radical, was a good deal more knowledgeable about Israel than Lucian, the German Jewish refugee.

That said, no professor was more memorable and influential than Lucian— in part because he provided his students a window into the fascism from which he fled. He cautioned us, his wide-eyed and idealistic American students, that fascism was possible anywhere. We were clueless but curious. Lucian made us both less clueless and more curious—smarter, in fact. Come to think of it, so did Tom.

Tom Hayden, much like Lucian Marquis, would become allergic to the kind of herd-like mentality that consumed Lucian’s mid-century Germany. It was one of the reasons the hard left eventually bore Hayden much ill will.

In any case, I strongly suspect both men, were they alive today, would share my deep disappointment. Both saw Pitzer as different from other colleges and universities: more free of dogma; more wedded to fairness; more inclined toward principle. Not perfect, but worthy of significant esteem. I learned the virtue of independent thinking from these two men. I’ve been grateful ever since.

This was the Pitzer that Lucian and Tom knew— indeed, the college I experienced and have since been proud to include on my resume.

No longer. The Pitzer faculty’s Haifa vote is illiberal— and betrays a knee-jerk animosity towards Israel as ignorant as it is disguised as principled. This is the kind of animus that often proves infectious, even dangerous, as it can turn individuals into crowds. It’s hardly what the Pitzer College I once knew was about.

I suspect you don’t share the Faculty’s views on the Haifa program. Even more, I’m gratified that your students (the official student council,  in any case) are prepared to buck their teachers.

Nonetheless, the vote badly tarnishes the college— and leaves a foul wind in its wake that won’t easily dissipate.

Yours sincerely,

Rabbi John Moscowitz, ‘75

From Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz in Los Angeles 

Dear President Oliver,

As a rabbi in Los Angeles, and as a current student at Claremont Graduate University, I find the decisions made by the Pitzer College faculty regarding its relationship with the State of Israel deeply troubling. In a time of complex social and political issues, in which institutions of higher education should be encouraging their students to engage across political boundaries and create learning opportunities from different perspectives, Pitzer College faculty has voted to suspend its study abroad program with the University of Haifa. While I would oppose any boycott against Israel, since Haifa is well within the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel, the only message this sends Pitzer students and the broader community is that the Pitzer faculty believes their students should distance themselves from all of Israel and all Israelis. The second faculty vote to dissent from the Board of Trustees’ decision to protect the college from the dangerous forces of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against the only Jewish State in the world and the only democracy in the Middle East cements a clear agenda of racism.

These tactics by the faculty punish Israel and isolate its academia without helping the Palestinians at all. Having lived in Israel for a year, I can attest that Haifa, the third largest city in Israel, is home to populations of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, Israeli Druze, the Bahai World Center, and others. Haifa is often celebrated as an example of beautiful co-existence in the region. What part of this offends the Pitzer faculty? These decisions seem to announce that Israel is solely to blame for the situation in the region, when in fact the Palestinians have formally rejected statehood a handful of times and the Palestinians continue today to foster a culture of hatred and hostility. How many other study abroad programs have the Pitzer faculty opposed to this extent? How should this kind of extreme political agenda on the part of the faculty toward the Jewish State be addressed by the administration? There is no doubt that this type of censorship of academic opportunities in the form of this boycott effort against Israel by the Pitzer faculty should be met by the harshest criticism.

All Jewish families should reconsider sending our children to be “taught” by the faculty at Pitzer. Connection to Israel is one of the key elements of Jewish Identity in the twenty-first century. If I would have to choose at this point for my own children to learn according to a worldview between the faculty of Pitzer and the faculty of the University of Haifa, there is no doubt I would prefer my children adopt the open welcoming academic outlook of Haifa. I hope and pray you are able to guide your institution back to a position of open-minded rational thought. I look forward to receiving a response.


Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz