Behind the scenes with Israel’s campus lobby

University administrators squash pro-Palestinian actions to avoid negative publicity and to keep alumni funding.

pro palestinian protest
Pro-Palestinian student groups attempt to get the attention of university administrators by highlighting Israeli actions against Palestinians [GALLO/GETTY]

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

Pro-Palestinian campus groups must find a language of protest that administrators respond to [GALLO/GETTY]

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.

Students alone

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.

Institutional fidelity

Pro-Israel campus groups have the support of powerful lobbies and wealthy supporters [GALLO/GETTY]

For the most part, university administrators made their decisions on the basis of two things:

First, they worked to avoid negative publicity. UC Hastings Dean Frank Wu instructed his staff to “keep track of the negative effects of the conference”, including “not just tangible costs, but intangible costs”. Intangible costs, presumably, referred to reputational costs.

They were particularly concerned that national media would pay attention. As previously mentioned, UC Berkeley deliberately refrained from issuing a statement about the divestment bill in order to avoid catching the attention of national media. University administrators were hyper-aware of media coverage, even as they ignored thousands of individual emails from students and their supporters.

This fact suggests that university-based activists and organisations should be conscious of the potential for publicity campaigns to grant them greater negotiating power on their own campuses. National organisations like the ADC and CAIR should consider helping them by issuing press releases and media advisories that may help provoke national media coverage. An otherwise local issue can become a matter of national import by the mere fact that a high-profile national organisation sees fit to intervene. The ADL uses this strategy to great effect.

Second, administrators paid great attention to the impact alumni displeasure could have on funding. Correspondence from alumni donors was taken most seriously. At UC Berkeley and UC Hastings, administrators received emails and letters from angry alumni who promised never to donate again if divestment succeeded at UC Berkeley and if the conference proceeded at UC Hastings. Low-level administrators often forwarded these missives to the highest officials.

Notably, administrators paid attention to these angry letters even when they used blatantly racist, hateful, and vitriolic language. University administrators opted to take the safer path even without proof that the number of alumni cutting ties would be sufficient to endanger the university.

These patterns teach an important lesson. University administrators typically do not censor perceived support for Palestinians because they themselves support Israel. They do it because they feel, rightly or wrongly, that their duty to alumni requires them to do it. While that reality is embarrassing because it means many university administrators lack solid judgment or a realistic assessment of institutional well being, it is promising because it means opportunities exist to change the situation.

While Palestine solidarity groups use moralistic language about human rights and progressive values, institutional administrators think in terms of funding, reputation, and legal obligations. Pro-Palestine groups must figure out how to deploy two parallel arguments.

One is the argument about the immorality of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the Palestinian struggle for freedom. The other is an argument about proper and responsible institutional behaviour requiring adherence to the ethical duty not to contribute to oppression. 

There are also university-specific arguments that stress the importance of free speech and academic inquiry on campus. These arguments must be harmonised in order to lead to more progressive policies on Israel.

It is not clear that these aims can be accomplished with a strictly identity-based theory of organising. Out of all correspondence I obtained from UC Hastings, only one letter came from an Arab alumnus who promised to halt donations because the school withdrew its support from the Litigating Palestine conference. While this is surely a sign that Arab alumni are generally not as organised or engaged, it is not clear that, if they were, they would have the numerical force necessary to counter the influence of the Israel lobby.

Rather than reducing the Palestinian issue from a human rights and ethical issue to an “Arab”, “Muslim”, or “Jewish” issue, it is more important to build bridges with other communities and interest groups on the basis of shared values.

Yaman Salahi is a third-year Arab-American student at Yale Law School and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.