New faculty group at U.C. Davis steps up for Israel

Students aren’t the only ones opposing anti-Israel activity at U.C. Davis. Approximately three dozen university professors have banded together to fight what they consider unfair treatment of Israel on campus.

Davis Faculty for Israel is a newly formed organization that hopes to take both defensive and proactive steps when it comes to overheated Israel-Palestine debate on campus.

Al Sokolow

As of late last week, 35 faculty members had signed on, including Al Sokolow, an emeritus community development professor and one of the DFI co-chairs. He said professors sympathetic to Israel have been disturbed by anti-Israel activity at U.C. Davis, especially when that activity stems from other professors and academic departments.

“What set us off were several examples of BDS advocacy on campus,” Sokolow said, “starting in 2014 [when] Middle East studies, together with other interdisciplinary programs, sponsored a panel on BDS that was completely one-sided. It occurred to us that academic units, whether departments or an interdisciplinary, should not engage in overt political advocacy. That’s not their mission.”

BDS refers to a movement that supports taking action against Israel through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

On Jan. 29, a resolution urging U.C. Regents to divest from some companies that do business in Israel passed the U.C. Davis student senate; however, it later was overturned by a student court after Jonathan Mitchell filed a suit claiming the measure violated the school constitution because it had nothing to do with student welfare.

Sokolow, who praised students for getting the resolution overturned, is sharing DFI chair duties with Joel Hass, a math professor. Other members of the steering committee are professors of medicine, math, animal science, pathology and law.

In addition to DFI, there is another pro-Israel group at U.C. Davis, Aggies for Israel. The student-run coalition has pushed a pro-Israel message on campus, which hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“We were quite inspired by Aggies for Israel in defending Israel and opposing that senate resolution,” Sokolow noted. “I said, ‘The students are doing that in their arena; we should do it in ours.’ ”

U.C. Davis students before a Jan. 29 vote on divestment photo/courtesy julia reifkind

DFI plans to work with U.C. Davis administrators to foster a more supportive environment for pro-Israel students, and to monitor anti-Israel talks, speakers and events that are either sponsored or supported by academic departments, an action DFI members say violate state law and U.C. policies.

DFI plans to monitor the behavior of U.C. Davis faculty members who, as stated in the group’s mission statement, “use the classroom as a vehicle to intimidate students, to organize political actions or to impose political views on students.”

The group also plans to support existing groups, such as Aggies for Israel, and to present a more positive image of Israel, including sponsoring speakers and new programs. For example, Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, spoke on Israeli-Palestinian relations and the BDS movement in a March 29 talk at the Hillel house in Davis. DFI is affiliated with SPME.

As for implementing the agenda, “the devil is in the details,” Sokolow said.

“On one hand, we’re looking for misuse of university resources to push a perspective opposing and demonizing Israel,” he said. “On the other hand, there is a lot we can do on the proactive side. We wrote to the administration, citing the education code, which prohibits using the name of U.C. in any boycott effort. We also cited the policies of the regents regarding political advocacy in the classroom. To my delight, the chancellor responded within a day.”

Sokolow also wants DFI to engender debate and discussion about the limits of academic freedom, a subject he feels pertains to the aggressive posture taken by some professors who support BDS.

Beyond that, what else does he hope DFI members can do to show support for Israel?

Said Sokolow: “We are prolific letter writers to the local press.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.