In first for US, California public university agrees to academic boycott of Israel

Head of Sonoma State University says he’s on leave less than a day after announcing deal, which includes formation of SJP ‘advisory council’ to ensure school complies with terms

Mike Lee of Sonoma State University. (YouTube screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Mike Lee of Sonoma State University. (YouTube screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The president of a public university in Northern California announced Wednesday that was he on leave, less than a day after endorsing an academic boycott of Israel as part of an agreement with pro-Palestinian demonstrators to remove their tent encampment that was fiercely denounced by Jewish groups and lawmakers.

In addition to an academic boycott, Sonoma State University’s Mike Lee agreed Tuesday to the establishment of an “advisory council” of Students for Justice in Palestine — whose national umbrella organization praised the Hamas-led October 7 terror onslaught that started the war in Gaza — to ensure compliance with the deal, which also includes a section on “disclosure and divestment.”

The deal, which followed a number of other agreements that universities have announced in an effort to end the protest encampments that have been roiling campuses in the US, appeared to make the school the first American university to agree to an academic boycott of Israel.

“My goal when meeting with students at the encampment was to explore opportunities to make meaningful change, identify common ground and create a safe and inclusive campus for all. I now realize that many of the statements I made in my campuswide message did just the opposite,” Lee wrote in a school-wide email.

“In my attempt to find agreement with one group of students, I marginalized other members of our student population and community. I realize the harm that this has caused, and I take full ownership of it. I deeply regret the unintended consequences of my actions,” he added.

He also stressed in the email that “the points outlined in the message were mine alone” and said he did not consult with the chancellor of the California State University system.

“As I step away on a leave, I will reflect on the harm this has caused and will be working with the chancellor’s office to determine next steps,” he said.

Lee’s announcement that he was on leave was welcomed by the Anti-Defamation League’s California branch, which called it “correcting a terrible misstep which put Jewish students on campus in danger.”

According to a copy of the agreement that Lee sent out less than 24 hours earlier, Sonoma State University was reviewing investments in its endowment, after which school administrators and the SJP advisory council “will meet with proper officials to determine a course of action leading to divestment strategies that include seeking ethical alternatives.”

“SSU will post and disseminate a disclosure statement related to funding amounts, the use of funding, and conditions attached to funds,” the message states.

The following section, titled “academic boycott,” notes the school does not have any exchange agreements with Israeli universities and vows that any potential partnerships will be considered “on an annual basis, in conversation with the advisory council of SJP.”

“SSU will not pursue or engage in any study abroad programs, faculty exchanges, or other formal collaborations that are sponsored by, or represent, the Israeli state academic and research institutions,” the letter says.

“SSU also commits to immediately updating any SSU pamphlets and SSU-hosted websites that may still be circulating or searchable and to remove hosting or linking to any pamphlets, flyers, or brochures advertising the study abroad program where students are encouraged to study abroad in Israel. SSU will make it clear to any students that any such programs are terminated until further notice and not simply suspended,” it continues. “SSU remains committed to upholding principles of academic freedom and open scholarly exchange. As such, SSU welcomes opportunities to engage Palestinian scholars.”

The letter says that the SJP advisory committee will be formed “as a mechanism to ensure SSU administration accountability for all agreements,” with “the main goal” of working with the school “to review progress on the initiatives listed below.”

“The advisory council of SJP will be established through a collaboration between SJP and Sonoma State and will be composed of members from the encampment, faculty, staff, administrators, Palestinian alumni, and other interested students, as determined by Students for Justice in Palestine,” the message says, adding it “will meet regularly beginning Fall 2024.”

The deal announced by Lee was condemned by local Jewish organizations, with the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area charging it violated California State University system’s policies against discrimination and a state anti-BDS law, “in addition to elevating anti-Israel groups that advocate for the elimination of the Jewish state.”

“The civil rights of Jewish students and faculty are not a bargaining chip that should be used to quell campus unrest,” the group said in a statement.

State Senator Scott Wiener accused Lee of aligning Sonoma State University “with BDS, a movement whose goal is the destruction of Israel, home to 7 million Jews.”

“Several other UC [University of California] and CSU [California State University] campuses are doing this more subtly,” Wiener wrote on the social media platform X, referring to two of the state’s two public university systems. “Sonoma State simply said the quiet part out loud.”

Protesters occupy university building in Southern California

Also Wednesday, pro-Palestinian protesters occupied a building at the University of California, Irvine, leading university officials to call in multiple police agencies, cancel classes and advise people on campus to shelter in place, a university spokesperson said.

The demonstration at Irvine, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of Los Angeles, was the latest in a series of campus protests across the US against Israel, in which activists have called for an end to the war and decried the death toll in Gaza while demanding universities divest from Israeli interests.

About 200 to 300 protesters surrounded a UC Irvine lecture hall at a time when no classes were in session, university spokesperson Tom Vasich said. Campus police responded and called for help from nearby agencies, he added.

Four adjacent research buildings with potentially hundreds of people inside were locked down and the people inside were instructed to shelter in place, Vasich said. Classes were canceled for the rest of the day, he said.

Following the request for help, officers from about 10 nearby law-enforcement agencies converged on the campus, leading the school to declare it a “violent protest.”

About four hours later, police had ejected the protesters from both the lecture hall and the nearby plaza that had been the site of the encampment, according to the university and Reuters witnesses.

“The police have retaken the lecture hall,” Vasich said by telephone from the scene. “The plaza has been cleared by law-enforcement officers.”

Vasich said there were a “minimal number of arrests” and characterized the protesters as “begrudgingly cooperative.”

The university said all classes will be held remotely on Thursday, asking employees not to come to campus.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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