Throughout history, students have been at the forefront of important movements advocating for fundamental changes in society.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement gained traction on university campuses in the UK and the US, with various demonstrations taking place and calls to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. At the University of California, Berkeley, students were successful in campaigning for divestment, and in 1986 the university voted to withdraw $3.1 billion worth of investments in the apartheid state.
The success of the anti-apartheid movement rested on students taking the initiative to gather and organise for change in conjunction with the university administration being open to what students had to say and acting accordingly. Had UC Berkeley deemed the movement too “controversial” or “polarising” and actively tried to suppress it as it was gaining momentum, students would not have been able to take a meaningful stand, in the form of divestment, against the oppressive regime in South Africa.
Today, university campuses are seeing a new movement taking shape, a movement for the liberation of Palestine. Similar to the anti-apartheid movement, students campaign for, amongst other things, divestment from companies complicit in the occupation of Palestine. However, unlike the anti-apartheid movement of the 70s, activists have faced a continuously uphill battle against efforts by administrations, outside organisations and even governments to stifle the movement.
Therefore, it is surprising that in a country with such strong ties to Israel, where in some states it is a crime to boycott the Jewish state and where the president considers legitimate criticism of Israel “anti-American”, students are growing more sympathetic towards the situation in Palestine and standing up against the brutal Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip.
The main problem is a general ignorance and lack of education surrounding the issue, says Leila*, a Palestinian-American student activist. Growing up, she quickly realised the tough reality of advocating for Palestine as she lived in a mainly white Jewish-American neighbourhood where pro-Israeli stances were considered the norm. Now at university, she often speaks to her fellow students about the cause and tells them about her Palestinian roots: “Once in a while, someone changes their mind about the issue after listening to me speak about my grandfather in Jerusalem, and that’s really rewarding.”
However, in the classroom, the conversation isn’t always as open, Leila says. In a discussion on birthright in her class about Jerusalem, as the only Palestinian in the room, she drew on her heritage and asked, “If you can go to Jerusalem, why can’t I, as someone whose family was born and raised there, return?” The professor later pulled her aside and told her that these things would be best left unsaid as they made her “uncomfortable”.
“This censorship of thought is something that is unfortunately present on campus, but it definitely cannot be a part of our classrooms. My ‘uncomfortable’ point of view is part of an important intellectual debate that should thrive in an academic setting.”
“But despite all that, student support for Palestine has definitely increased over the years, it’s just all a bit under the table,” Leila explains. This is mainly due to fear of pushback as many students who would like to speak up about Palestine have ties to the region and are worried about their student visas being affected. Support for Palestine is – as yet – not a completely mainstream idea on American campuses, so being vocal about it would call unwanted attention to a student.
Canary Mission is one of the reasons why student support for Palestine remains “under the table”. According to its website, it “documents people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.” The group also publishes dossiers on pro-Palestinian activists, many of whom are students, with personal details such as their photos and locations. The website is also often used by Israeli security forces to justify deporting people from Israel. This invasive activity permanently affects student activists as it exposes them to even more online harassment and may affect their future employment opportunities.
Canary Mission did not respond to MEMO’s request for comment regarding its practice of making public students’ personal information as a result of their pro-Palestine activism.
Student organisations on campus also face challenges in getting funding and hosting events. Their main obstacles come from the administration, says Noor*, a student activist from Boston. The bureaucracy choking student-run organisations such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) of their funding and status is often less present for other groups, she said.
Funding is hard to secure, according to Noor: “This year it got even harder for SJP. The school demoted us to a lower-classed organisation, so now it’s harder for us to host events and raise the money that we need.”
Despite efforts by groups such as Canary Mission to suppress such student groups, a number of universities, including Ivy League Brown University and Swarthmore College, have passed student government bills calling to divest from Israel.
At Brown University, an Ivy League research university, student group Brown Divest organised a referendum in March to divest from nine companies identified with facilitating human rights abuses in Palestine. Around 69 per cent voted yes in the referendum, but it was later shut down by Brown President Christina Paxson who said: “Brown’s endowment is not a political instrument to be used to express views on complex social and political issues, especially those over which thoughtful and intelligent people vehemently disagree.”
When asked for comment, Brown spokesperson Brian Clark reiterated Paxson’s remarks and added: “Students do not oversee the University’s investments, so it was purely a non-binding expression by students. While that is absolutely welcome on campus, it is not the established mechanism on campus for asking the University to consider changes in investments… Students have absolutely every right to make their viewpoint clear, which they did through the referendum, and the undergraduate student government has every right to govern the issues within their purview. University investments are not within the purview of the student government.”
Brown Divest organisers were “disappointed but not surprised” at Paxson’s decision. However, a group of faculty came together in support of the referendum, praising the organisers for their “extraordinary courage”. They further emphasised that the Brown students who voted in the referendum “deserve[d] better than the unfounded accusation that they are politically polarising an otherwise neutral campus,” and noted that “Brown’s senior administration has yet to condemn egregious blacklisting websites, such as Canary Mission, that have threateningly listed Brown students and professors who criticise the Israeli government’s actions and speak up for Palestinian human rights.”
Brown Divest’s anticipated disappointment is characteristic of many student groups supporting Palestine as they continue to face hurdle after hurdle in their struggle to demand justice for Palestinians. The lack of implementation of student government-approved divestment resolutions can often be traced to significant donors or members of the administration.
Expressing her frustration at this power imbalance, Leila says:
If one person who gives a lot of money to the school doesn’t like the resolution, then despite the overwhelming student support for it, the resolution will not be enacted, which just takes away from the entire democratic process.
Meanwhile at Swarthmore College, a top liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, the school administration did not provide enough security against this harassment, as evidenced by Swarthmore SJP’s experience when the student government voted to divest from seven companies upholding the Israeli military occupation.
Prior to the student senate vote, a public Twitter account called “Stop Hate At Swarthmore” was created and repeatedly called the divestment resolution and Swarthmore SJP “anti-Semitic”. It also referenced students who had spoken to publications about the resolution by their full names and social media handles.
Due to the online harassment, the president and vice president decided to hold the vote anonymously in a closed meeting, in a break from their tradition of voting openly in public meetings. “We did not want to risk members being detained, especially members with ties to the region, or members facing potential harassment or physical violence for any reason.”
It is unfortunate that voting to support human rights puts our safety in jeopardy
the president said.
Swarthmore College did not respond to a request for comment.
Apart from calling on universities to divest from Israel, a handful of colleges in the Boston area began a joint campaign demanding that their universities end the “deadly exchange”, referring to a program that sends police, including campus police, to Israel to be trained by occupation forces. “In these programs, ‘worst practices’ are shared to promote and extend discriminatory and repressive policing in both countries,” according to the official End the Deadly Exchange website.
End the Deadly Exchange is a campaign by Jewish Voice for Peace, an organisation that opposes the Israeli occupation, to end police exchange programs between the US and Israel that facilitate the exchange of practices such as mass surveillance and violent suppression of political dissent.
“The exchange program perpetuates the racialised hierarchy that underscores not only the Israeli military occupation but also much of the police brutality in the US, and it won’t help our campus police keep us safe,” says Noor.
Student activism is one of the waves of radical change needed to break the status quo surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These student groups know it, the university administrations know it, and Israel – having learnt the lessons of Apartheid South Africa – knows it.
At a time when pro-Palestinian dialogue is increasingly restricted, universities should take the lead in ensuring that pro-Palestinian activists are given the space and security to voice their concerns without fear.
The harassment that pro-Palestinian activists face is inexcusable and poses a very real risk and invasion into their everyday lives. But it is a testament to the importance of their work, that groups try so hard to silence them.
Despite the threats to activists, students all around campuses are becoming more aware of the oppressive Israeli occupation and are mobilising for Palestinian rights. Support is rising up from “under the table” as it becomes clear that Israel is an apartheid state. Just as their predecessors responded to the situation in South Africa 40 years ago, students today are beginning to realise that similar action is required in order to take a stand against the continuous violations of Palestinian rights.
“What we’re doing is more than a political struggle, it’s a struggle for basic human rights, and that’s what makes this different from just another student movement…what we’re doing is too important for us to give up in the face of external pressure,” Noor says.
*names changed to protect those interviewed