Columbia students fight for divestment

By David Judd | March 9, 2009

NEW YORK–Pro-Palestinian activists at Columbia University kicked off their campaign for divestment from the Israeli occupation with a teach-in and a speak-out on March 4-5.

One hundred thirty people turned out, packing the teach-in to overflowing. Although administrators only allowed 65 people into the room, dozens more stayed to listen from outside the door.

Several administrators were present at the event, including John Murolo, the head of campus security–suggesting worries about the possibility of a sit-in or occupation along the lines of recent actions by students at the New School, New York University and the University of Rochester.

Gil Anidjar, a professor in the Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures department, spoke about the U.S. boycott of the Durban international anti-racist conference (because of its criticisms of Zionism) and the hypocrisy of those like Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who pretend to be opposed to the tactic of boycott in general. Bruce Robbins, an English professor, went through the history of academic freedom and questioned whether it could really protect Palestinians.

Brinkley Messick, chair of the Anthropology Department, informed the crowd that Bollinger had agreed to meet with a group of faculty who signed a letter criticizing Bollinger’s outspoken defense of Israeli, but not Palestinian, academics. He went on to discuss the ties of Israeli universities to the U.S. and Israeli militaries.

Anthropologist and political scientist Mahmoud Mamdani reflected on his time in apartheid South Africa, and argued that despite the differences, the need for resistance is the same.

Two activists from Adalah-NY, Lubna Hammad and Ethan Heitner, gave a presentation on the history of Palestine and ways to participate in the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

Hammad talked about the futility of her attempt at dialogue with a soldier pointing a gun at her face at an Israeli checkpoint, and defended resistance to the occupation. “If you are trying to kill me,” she said, “first I’ll throw a rock at you. But if I can get my hands on something better at stopping you from killing me, I will use that.”

Finally, Olivia Rosane, a student representative of the Columbia Palestine Forum, read out the group’s demands for divestment, aid for Gaza, and transparency in the university’s endowment.

The presentations were followed by a discussion period, where many in the audience expressed enthusiasm about the divestment campaign. While there was dissent from some Zionists in the audience, Rosane was “surprised” by “the number of passionate statements of support.”

The next day, March 5, a rally was held in front of the Low administration building. Though a flyer for the demonstration only appeared the night before, a crowd of more than 30 turned out. The Columbia Palestine Forum formally delivered its demands to Columbia’s Vice President for Arts and Sciences, Nicholas Dirks. As a few students spoke with him, the rest chanted, “When Palestine is occupied, divestment is justified.”

Columbia’s Zionists have already begun to react. Though the Columbia Palestine Forum’s demands do not use the word “apartheid,” campus Zionists have, perhaps defensively, focused on the term. Hillel, an umbrella organization which claims to represent the campus Jewish community, put out a statement arguing that “The labeling of Israel as an apartheid state is wholly inappropriate…factually inaccurate and malicious.”

However, to give its argument even surface plausibility, the statement focuses exclusively on Palestinians living within Israel, while ignoring those living in the Occupied Territories. As one Palestinian woman put it in the discussion at the March 4 panel, whatever label is used, “I know what it means when my cousins try to go to school or work and can’t get there. I know that it destroys daily life for Palestinians.”

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