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Op-eds, Opinions

When Brown students speak, the University should listen: A faculty letter in support of student activism

Op-Ed Contributors
Tuesday, April 2, 2019

We, the undersigned Brown faculty, wish to express our concern about the content and tenor of President Christina Paxson P’19’s letter to the Brown community March 22 in response to the overwhelming support for a student referendum that called on the University to “divest all stocks, funds, endowment and other monetary instruments from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine and establish a means of implementing financial transparency and student oversight of the University’s investments.” Following weeks of campus debate which produced a higher-than-average turnout in a much-watched election, 69 percent —1,939 out of 2,810 voting students — voted in favor of the referendum.

Paxson’s response, issued to the entire Brown community the day after the referendum results were announced, diminishes the divestment vote as “polarizing” and something that would “detract from the inclusive, intellectually-vibrant community we aspire to be.” Belying her own claim that the University does not take sides on contested issues, Paxson also took this opportunity to reiterate her opposition to the global Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement, even though the movement itself was not explicitly on the ballot. These strong statements can have the political effect of stifling student activism. They can also be read as an admonishment of students who organized the referendum and, implicitly, of all those who voted in favor of divestment.

We write in defense of student activism and against making Palestine an exception to the right of free speech on campus. Regardless of one’s position on divestment, the roughly two thousand undergraduate students at Brown who, exercising their democratic right, voted in favor of the referendum deserve better than the unfounded accusation that they are politically polarizing an otherwise neutral campus. All students deserve respect, protection and a fair hearing when they exercise their legitimate right to pose questions and vote. That must include those who voted against the President’s views.

We are deeply concerned by Paxson’s statement that “instead” of calls for divestment, the Brown community should “engage in productive discourse on this issue through our teaching, research and contributions to diplomacy.” This statement unacceptably narrows the range of legitimate activism by students and other members of the Brown community. By using the phrase “on this issue” it also sets up a double standard, in that it seems to apply only to activism that is critical of Israeli government policies. The 1968 Black Student Walkout, the 1975 student vote to strike in favor of budget transparency, the 1987 Students Against Apartheid demands for divestment from South Africa and more recently, the 2015 student organizing against university inaction on racial and class representation on campus were also entirely peaceful and democratic forms of activism that sought to challenge indifference or political gridlock that existed at the time. Ultimately, they made Brown a better place.

It is precisely such examples of student activism for social justice that have inspired supporters of Brown Divest. The numerous public events they organized during the six months prior to the March 21 referendum contributed positively to informed and lively debate on campus and reaffirmed that all groups, without exception, are entitled to basic human rights. Through the referendum vote, many students have made clear their view that the Israeli government’s policies towards Palestinians are diametrically opposed to Brown University’s self-proclaimed values, enshrined in its strategic plan, Building on Distinction, which calls for “Creating Peaceful, Just, and Prosperous Societies.” And they are not alone. Similar divestment referendums have passed in student government bodies at other campuses such as Stanford University, New York University, Barnard College, the University of Minnesota and George Washington University, among others.

It is not surprising that many Brown undergraduates resorted to a referendum in order to make their voices heard. As she acknowledges in her March 22 letter to the community, Paxson in 2012 rejected the recommendation of Brown’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies to initiate dialogue about possible divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories. Indeed, Brown Divest students have worked diligently through University processes and have sought dialogue rather than confrontation. In this, they have shown extraordinary courage in the face of not only Paxson’s record of rejection on this issue, but also aggressive national campaigns of intimidation and censorship aimed at college students and professors who dare to speak out against Israeli government policies, as well as attempts by President Donald Trump’s administration to conflate legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism.

It is vital to recognize that students active in Brown Divest have consistently called for upholding the human rights of all people. They have repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism along with any other form of racism and bigotry. Many attended vigils in honor of Jewish and Muslim victims of recent terrorist attacks by white supremacists in Pittsburgh and New Zealand. Several, also, responded constructively to the arguments of students who opposed the referendum — whose voices should and are being heard — in a succession of spirited op-eds in this newspaper. These exchanges highlighted the diversity of opinions among Jewish students on divestment, many of whom supported the referendum. While these students have engaged in productive discourse, Brown’s senior administration has yet to condemn egregious blacklisting websites, such as Canary Mission, that have threateningly listed Brown students and professors who criticize the Israeli government’s actions and speak up for Palestinian human rights.

At a time when there is as dire a need as ever for moral clarity, transparency and democratic participation in our country, we call on our University administration to take seriously our students’ concern about injustices in which our institution may be complicit. Is Brown University a beneficiary of investments in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine? That is the still unanswered question at the heart of last week’s campus vote. It is not a question we or anyone else should admonish our students for asking. Rather, let us support and honor all our students — and with it Brown’s renowned tradition of rigorous, conscientious and engaged scholarship — by organizing campus-wide discussions and debates on that question and others like it. If principled inquiry is our method and the pursuit of knowledge for a better world is our goal, what do we have to fear?


Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman, Departments of American Studies and English

Faiz Ahmed, Department of History

Umer Akbar, Department of Neurology

Nadje Al-Ali, Department of Anthropology and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Leticia Alvarado, Department of American Studies

Iradj Anvar, Center for Language Studies

Ariella Azoulay, Departments of Modern Culture and Media and Comparative Literature

Timothy Bewes, Department of English

Leslie Bostrom, Department of Visual Art

Lundy Braun, Departments of Africana Studies and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

Palmira Brummett, Department of History

Mari Jo Buhle, Departments of History and American Studies

Paul Buhle, Department of American Studies

Caroline Castiglione, Departments of Italian Studies and History

John Cayley, Department of Literary Arts

Tamara Chin, Departments of Comparative Literature and East Asian Studies

Nitsan Chorev, Department of Sociology and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Mirena Christoff, Center for Language Studies

Mark Cladis, Department of Religious Studies

Joan Copjec, Department of Modern Culture and Media

Denise Davis, Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women

Kelly Dobson, Department of Modern Culture and Media

Fulvio Domini, Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences

Beshara Doumani, Department of History

Emily Drumsta, Department of Comparative Literature

Paja Faudree, Department of Anthropology

Masako Fidler, Department of Slavic Studies

James Fitzgerald, Department of Classics

Scott Frickel, Department of Sociology and Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Lina Fruzetti, Department of Anthropology

Leela Gandhi, Department of English and Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Alex Gourevitch, Department of Political Science

Matthew Guterl, Departments of Africana Studies and American Studies

Matthew Gutmann, Department of Anthropology

Yannis Hamilakis, Department of Classics and Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World

Françoise Hamlin, Departments of History and Africana Studies

Alla Hassan, Center for Language Studies

Juliet Hooker, Department of Political Science

Lung-Hua Hu, Department of East Asian Studies

Evelyn Hu-Dehart, Departments of History and American Studies

Jose Itzigsohn, Department of Sociology

Lynne Joyrich, Department of Modern Culture and Media

Tamar Katz, Department of English

William Keach, Department of English

Adrienne Keene, Department of American Studies and Ethnic Studies

Michael Kennedy, Department of Sociology and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Nancy Khalek, Department of Religious Studies

Daniel Kim, Departments of English and American Studies

Brian Lander, Department of History and Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Robert Lee, Department of American Studies

Mary Rebecca Leuchak, Center for Language Studies

Evelyn Lincoln, Departments of History of Art and Architecture and Italian Studies

Catherine Lutz, Department of Anthropology and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Amanda Lynch, Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences

Sreemati Mitter, Department of History and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Elias Muhanna, Department of Comparative Literature

Monica Muñoz Martinez, Department of American Studies and Ethnic Studies

Rebecca Nedostup, Department of History

Laura Odello, Department of French Studies

Adi Ophir, Cogut Institute for the Humanities and Middle East Studies

Emily Owens, Department of History

Samuel Perry, Department of East Asian Studies

Kevin Quashie, Department of English

Thangam Ravindranathan, Department of French Studies

Marc Redfield, Departments of English and Comparative Literature

Syed Rizvi, Department of Neurology

Daniel A. Rodriguez, Department of History

Ellen Rooney, Department of Modern Culture and Media

Christopher Rose, School of Engineering

Tricia Rose, Department of Africana Studies

Philip Rosen, Department of Modern Culture and Media

Nidia Schuhmacher, Department of Hispanic Studies

Robert Self, Department of History

Thomas Serre, Department of Cognitive Linguistic and Psychological Sciences

Naoko Shibusawa, Departments of History and American Studies

Elena Shih, Department of American Studies and Ethnic Studies

Daniel Jordan Smith, Department of Anthropology

Kerry Smith, Department of History

Victoria Smith, Department of Hispanic Studies

Susan Smulyan, Department of American Studies

Patricia Sobral, Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies

Silvia Sobral, Department of Hispanic Studies

Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg, Departments of Italian Studies and Comparative Literature

Lulei Su, Department of East Asian Studies

Mark Suchman, Department of Sociology

Peter Szendy, Department of Comparative Literature and Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Nina Tannenwald, Department of Political Science

Peter van Dommelen, Department of Archaeology and Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World

Lingzhen Wang, Department of East Asian Studies

William H. Warren, Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences

Elizabeth Weed, Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women

Deborah Weinstein, Department of American Studies

Andre C. Willis, Department of Religious Studies

David Wills, Departments of French Studies and Comparative Literature

Patricia Ybarra, Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies

Vazira Zamindar, Department of History

Asli Zengin, Department of Anthropology

An updated list of Brown Faculty signatories can be found here.

Correction: Due to a miscommunication in the editorial process, an earlier version of this op-ed included the following question: “Is Brown University a beneficiary of investments in companies that profit from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine?” This misstates the authors’ original argument and has been corrected to read: “Is Brown University a beneficiary of investments in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine?” The Herald regrets the error.


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  1. That’s a lot of faculty who are willing to ignore all of the murderous misdeeds of Palestinians that have made it necessary for Israelis to go to great lengths to provide for a reasonable security for their people.

    • hypocrisy says:

      “great lengths” that includes apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

      • Those terms are not the least bit descriptive of Israel and the Palestinians. Find out what apartheid was really about in South Africa. It meant separate townships for blacks and a completely separate set of laws and rights. That doesn’t describe Israel. And ethnic cleansing, which arose out of Serb-Bosnian war was the actual murder or displacement of the entire non-Serbian population from Serbian-controlled areas. That does not describe the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Maybe from the Palestinian side, as they fight to keep all Jews out of their territory, killing as many as they can get away with.

        • hypocrisy says:

          Really? What do you think those walled off settlements on Palestinian lands are ?

          • They are certainly not ethnic cleansing. As for apartheid, why are they walled off? To keep the Palestinians from murdering every last man, woman, and child.

          • hypocrisy says:

            You build a wall on your land. Not on land you steal. Stealing land and pushing them into discontinuous ghettos is certainly ethnic cleansing.

          • Ethnic cleansing, a phrase that came into our parlance during the Serb-Bosnian war, referred to the mass expulsion or genocide of a minority population. What is happening in the territories Israel conquered in the 1967 war is a very different thing. Creating settlements for Jews to live in is no different from what practically any country has done with conquered territories throughout history. The Arabs in those territories are not being expelled from the territory nor are they being killed. Calling this “ethnic cleansing” is a wild overstatement, much like calling Israel itself an apartheid state. Palestinian apologists believe that they can win the argument by defining the terms of the debate. This is why they (you) use such extreme language that is fraught with historical meaning that is not pertinent to the current situation.

          • hypocrisy says:

            No its not very different. You wall off a people into ghettos and what do you think it is. Quit pretending its not.

          • If you are talking about the West Bank settlements, it is not a “ghetto” if the people in them are there voluntarily and the ones on the outside are not allowed in. That’s like saying the Nazis forced the Polish residents of Warsaw into a “ghetto” because they were not allowed into the small, crowded walled-off Jewish neighborhood.

            If you are talking about the West Bank itself, well, there is a long border with Jordan, so you can hardly say that Israel has the Palestinians penned in. What’s stopping them from going east? Is it a ghetto enforced by another Muslim country?

            As for “ethnic cleansing,” you might want to examine the situation in France, where the entire Jewish population (1% of the total) has suffered 50% of the hate crimes, including savage beatings and murders at the hands of Muslims, so much so that they are leaving the country in numbers not seen in 70 years.

          • If insiders don’t have freedom of movement on their entire land, then yes its a ghetto.

            Cause Israel is the controlling authority. And its neighbors like Jordan fully know that the Israelis would love to use the first excuse to palm off the Palestinians onto them.

            And the hate crimes conducted with impunity by settlers ?

          • You still don’t get the definition of a ghetto. The ghetto was a totally enclosed neighborhood which people were forced into and not allowed to leave. This is not even close to the situation of the Palestinians. No Palestinian is forced to stay within the confines of his neighborhood. He has the whole West Bank, except for the settlements, in which to live.

            By your curious and self-serving definition, the Israelis are also in a ghetto, because the Arab areas of the West Bank are not open to them. But of course, that is an absurd notion of what the word “ghetto” means.

            It’s funny that you seem to believe that the Jordanians find the Palestinians as loathsome as the Israelis do. I wonder why that is? Does it have something to do with Black September and the attempt by the Palestinians to take over the country?

          • totally enclosed neighborhood which people were forced into and not allowed to leave – That exactly describes Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Yes he can move from one ghetto to another all surrounded by settlements on stolen land.

            No the Jordanians don’t find the Palestinians loathsome. They don’t want to be stuck with millions of them while you side makes up more stories.

            Black September, sure just like Ariel Sharons massacre in Lebanon. All bad. At least i remember both.

          • What percentage of the West Bank consists of settlements? People in the West Bank can live anywhere except in the settlements, which is pretty much everywhere. No one forced them into the places where they live, and no one keeps them there.

            Jordan can let all of them in, but chooses not to. Why not? They don’t want to be stuck with them? Exactly. Why doesn’t Egypt allow Palestinians to move freely out of Gaza? Don’t want to be stuck with them? Exactly. Nobody in the Arab world wants to be stuck with them.

            You keep bringing up non-sequiturs. The massacre in Lebanon was committed by Lebanese militias, not by Israelis.

          • Thats like saying you can live in your bedroom and even go to your kitchen, but i’m going to wall off the rest of your property, but your’e still free.

            Why Jordan ? Why not the land they are entitled to. Why point fingers at everyone else ?

            Committed by Lebanese militias actively aided and abetted by Israel. Why omit that ?

          • Your analogy of living in your bedroom fails. It’s more like you can live anywhere in your town except for the gated community that you cannot afford.

            And you are the one who omitted the minor detail that the actual killing was committed by Arabs. You called it Ariel Sharon’s massacre. Arabs kill Arabs, and you blame the Jews. There’s a word to describe that attitude.

          • Gated community on land that was stolen from.

            In a bank robbery the person who drives the getaway car is also indicted. There’s a word to describe persons who are apologists for apartheid.

          • Stolen how? By winning a war that the Arabs started for the purpose of destroying Israel? That’s what happens when you lose a war. You might lose some land. The entire West Bank and Gaza and also Sinai were taken by Israel, and they have given most of it back. The Palestinians and their Arab allies made huge mistakes (in 48, 67, 73) and now they want to complain that they didn’t mean it and that it’s unfair that they should suffer any cost for their attempts to kill all the Israelis. The Israelis, whom they still want to kill, are so mean.

            As for being an apologist for apartheid, well, you keep begging that question and failing to demonstrate that you know what apartheid is, or that you can reason clearly enough to compare apartheid South Africa to conditions in Israel. You keep going back to the same baseless charge, which you seem to accept without much thought. No use in my going over the same ground with you.

          • Oh, spare me the “destroy Israel” spiel. Both sides have started wars out there. Seizing land and stripping its inhabitants is apartheid. Pointing fingers at everyone else is a weak excuse to deflect from apartheid.

            Try the truth for starters rather than endless Hasbara

          • Okay, I’ll spare you the “destroy Israel” spiel. You are not willing to consider facts that challenge your ideology. Thus, you are not someone worthy of my time. You go ahead and have the last word, because that’s the kind of guy you are.

          • What facts ? You wish to pretend that walling of people into ghettos is some kind of free living and further more start spieling that Israel never started any of the conflicts. And you wanna talk facts ? Really

  2. David Josephson says:

    The sharks have smelled blood and are in a feeding frenzy. Let us hope that the President stands her ground.

  3. a recent jewish alum here to say – kol hakavod and hazak u’baruch – the jewish future demands palestinian freedom! – towards a liberated future – for US and for ALL!

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