Obama’s Exclusion of Certain Students from his Israel Speech Sparks Backlash and Calls for Boycott, Even from Left Wing

President Barack Obama boards Air Force One en route to Israel Tuesday (Photo courtesy: U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro via Facebook)

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv sent invitations to universities around Israel for President Barack Obama’s speech to the public Thursday night, but pointedly excluded one institution of higher learning, Ariel University. That’s because Ariel University is located in the West Bank city of Ariel. Forget that 600 members of the student body are Arab and that this college has the largest number of Ethiopian immigrant students in all of Israel.

The U.S. opposes the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, that is, the West Bank, a point clearly reflected in its invitation list. Of the eight accredited institutions of higher learning in Israel, Ariel was the only school excluded. All the other universities sit within the borders of pre-1967 Israel. The embassy’s public stance is that it’s not really boycotting Ariel, rather giving tickets only to schools that have an existing partnership with the embassy.

The boycott of Ariel students has prompted an outcry from Israeli students and politicians, including even those on the left side of the aisle. Four congressmen wrote a letter to Obama to criticize the move.

Labor Party Member of Knesset Nachman Shai is urging students to boycott the speech at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem.

He wrote on Facebook, “Following the decision not to invite students from Ariel to the U.S. President’s speech in Israel, I demand that the [national] Student Union inform President Obama that they will not attend his lecture on Thursday.”

“It is shocking to think that you can disqualify students just because they learn in the West Bank. I do not understand how President Obama wants to conduct a dialogue with the Israeli public when he is consciously excluding part of it,” Shai added.

Member of Knesset Yoni Chetboun of the right-wing Jewish Home party called the snub unacceptable since Ariel is an accredited university that educates both Jews and Arabs.

In fact, Ariel University was only accredited last year after a highly-charged political debate within Israel.

Even Obama’s choice of venue has some eyebrows raised. He’s skipping the Knesset altogether in favor of the convention center for his keynote speech. That’s a departure from the tradition of all the other other American presidents who have chosen to address democratically elected lawmakers at the Knesset. Of all four presidents who have visited Israel while in office, only Obama is skipping the Knesset. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush formally addressed the Knesset, while Richard Nixon spoke at an official Knesset banquet.

Obama’s Exclusion of Certain Students from his Israel Speech Sparks Backlash and Calls for Boycott, Even from Left Wing

President Bill Clinton addressing the Knesset during one of his four visits to Israel while president (Photo courtesy: GPO via Israeli Embassy to U.S.)

The four Republican congressmen noticed that too and wrote a letter to Obama to criticize both his venue choice and the exclusion of Ariel Students.

Reps. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and John Fleming (R-Louisiana) wrote: “We believe you understand the importance of addressing a nation’s parliament as you have taken the time to address members of parliament in the United Kingdom, Australia and Ghana.”

Addressing the Knesset is a “customary and symbolic gesture that celebrates our shared democratic ideas and the special relationship between Israel and the U.S,” the congressmen said, though they also added that addressing students was “commendable and encouraged.”

About Ariel, the letter stated, “We are disappointed to learn that students from the University of Ariel, located in the West Bank town of Ariel, did not receive an invitation to hear you speak. Especially since the University of Ariel is the first beyond the Green Line, and is officially and legally recognized by the Government of Israel.”

The Vice Chair of Ariel’s student union Galiya Levy tells The Jerusalem Post: “This is exactly what we wanted…It is amazing to see that our fight became a global initiative, not just for students but for anyone who cared and sees this as an important discrimination.”

Ariel’s Student Union placed this poster on Facebook saying: “Yes we can? No we can’t! We won’t let Obama discriminate against us. A student in Ariel = a student in Israel.”

Obama’s Exclusion of Certain Students from his Israel Speech Sparks Backlash and Calls for Boycott, Even from Left Wing

Facebook poster from Ariel University Student Union

Technion student Shahar Kvatinsky says he’s also boycotting the speech. As the Jerusalem Post reported, he wrote on Facebook:

I was very happy when I was chosen to represent the Technion at your speech.
This is a great privilege to meet with the leader of the free world, the head of the world’s greatest superpower, just something to tell the grandchildren.
Still, I will not be attending.
Why?…Because you are belittling us Israelis and discriminating against Ariel.

Kvatinsky said that the snub demonstrates Obama’s “lack of respect for the opinions of the citizens of Israel or the decision of the Israeli government, which has declared Ariel an accredited university.”

Ariel students plan to hold a protest outside the convention center while Obama is speaking Thursday.

Here’s a video from an Israel National News reporter who covered a protest by the Ariel University students on Tuesday: