Students at the New School withstood pepper spray attacks by police last week while trying to force the ouster of their controversial president, continuing the tradition of a year of occupations as part of a national campaign for accessible education. The beleaguered administrators they target could almost be forgiven for thinking that the goals of student power movements end where they begin — on campus.
Tucked away in the demands of another group of student occupiers, this time at New York University — alongside investment transparency and a tuition freeze — was a call for annual scholarships for 13 Palestinian students and NYU support for the reconstruction of the University of Gaza. A few weeks prior, students at Hampshire College won a two-year campaign for their university to divest from Israel. And at Brown, students galvanized by Israel's winter assault on the Gaza Strip organized under the banner of Break the Siege.
These emerging movements reflect a rising consciousness among student activists that our universities are complicit in the Israeli apartheid. As long as American universities continue to energize the Israeli apartheid economy with their investments, our student power will mean that we retain leverage over the situation in Palestine. We can reprise the student role in ending the South African apartheid, working on our campuses to answer the grassroots call for BDS: boycott, divestment and sanctions.
BDS is designed to remove the international economic dynamo that permits the Israeli government to pursue policies of apartheid. The BDS campaign is not a Palestinian government initiative. "The call for BDS came directly from Palestinian society," said Jesse Soodalter '94 MD '09, an organizer around Palestinian issues on campus.
BDS is designed in recognition of the fact that the powerful national governments sympathetic to Israel are not going to come to the aid of the Palestinian people. Combined with the systematic dismantling of the political and international leverage of the Palestinian people through the destruction of infrastructure and the exclusion of Palestinian labor from the Israeli economy, these political circumstances mean that only international grassroots initiatives can achieve change.
Students nationwide are ramping up their own efforts to support the BDS initiative, and historical precedent is on their side. Divestment has proved a popular, feasible and effective tool. The global movement for divestment from Darfur, a cause behind which Brown's administration elected to throw its weight, is only the latest example. BDS programs were the international pressure that broke down apartheid in South Africa, and students and universities had a major role to play in those initiatives.
And within the present BDS movement, the student demands at NYU and divestment at Hampshire College are part of a much broader international campaign that is well underway. An Amnesty International leader has called on the United States government to end military aid to Israel. And the faculty members who have signed on to the academic and cultural boycott of Israel represent 143 American universities.
But unlike Darfur or South Africa, Israel is not a politically easy issue. There are a lot more Zionists on campus than there were pro-apartheid South African students. Universities take more in donations from Zionists than from the Janjaweed. And thus Brown, despite its historically progressive stance on similar situations in South Africa, East Timor and Darfur, remains resistant when it comes to Israel. President Ruth Simmons has publicly opposed the academic boycott and Chancellor Thomas Tisch '76 served on the publication committee of Commentary, a magazine literally founded around the Zionist cause.
So while students on campus must work to prevent the University from throwing its economic weight behind apartheid (it all comes back to institutional transparency and accountability, doesn't it?), BDS advocates at Brown must also work to refute the image that to be pro-Palestine is to hold a taboo position. The recent international coalescence around BDS is evidence that it is, in truth, mainstream.
At Brown, those efforts begin with refuting the idea, prevalent even on this campus, that anti-Zionism is the same thing as anti-Semitism, which reeks of the very ethnic purity the Jewish community should have learned to avoid. "Calling anti-Zionism or BDS activism anti-Semitism is itself an act of ethnic essentialism," Soodalter said. "It presumes to define Jewish identity as Zionist. It attempts to erase the existence of anti-Zionist Jews." Like me.
Simon Liebling '12 is Jewish (he swears) and from New Jersey. He can be reached at