California university will heed student call to boycott Israel institutions

Calls to boycott Israeli academic institutions have been a consistent demand of protesters against Israel’s war in Gaza.

A woman paints on a barrier during a protest set up in a plaza at the University of Texas at Dallas, Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Richardson, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
A woman paints on a barrier during a protest set up at the University of Texas at Dallas on May 1 [LM Otero/AP Photo]

Sonoma State University, a public school in northern California, has said that it will not enter partnerships with Israeli universities, heeding a call from pro-Palestine student groups pushing to boycott Israeli companies and institutions amid the war in Gaza.

The decision, announced on Tuesday, comes after a recent wave of campus protests spread across the United States, with encampments and demonstrations cropping up at schools like Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

As part of their demands, student activists aimed to sever school ties with academic bodies and companies perceived as complicit in Israel’s war and decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territory.

In an email to students on Tuesday, Sonoma State’s president, Mike Lee, said the school had reached an agreement with the protesters, who set up an on-campus encampment three weeks ago.

Sonoma State would do more to disclose its contracts and seek “divestment strategies”, Lee wrote. It would also not pursue partnerships that are “sponsored by, or represent, the Israeli state academic and research institutions”.

In exchange for the concessions, student activists agreed to dismantle the cluster of tents on campus by Wednesday evening.

Many universities have responded to the demands of antiwar activists with police crackdowns on encampments. But those efforts have done little to dim calls for divestment, and campus activists have likened their efforts to historic student protests against the Vietnam War and apartheid South Africa.

Several pro-Palestine university encampments have disbanded after negotiations over divestment demands with administrators.

In late April, for instance, protesters took down their tents at Brown University in Rhode Island, after the Ivy League school’s board of governors agreed to consider divestment in a vote this October.

However, calls for divestment can be controversial in the US, where Israel enjoys strong political backing.

Israel receives $3.8bn in military aid from the US every year, and US lawmakers have, with the encouragement of pro-Israel groups, moved to penalise and even criminalise calls to boycott Israel.

In Texas, for instance, Republican Governor Greg Abbott responded to students’ divestment demands directly, saying earlier this month, “This will NEVER happen.” Under his leadership, the state passed a law that prohibits government entities from contracting with firms that boycott Israel.

Backlash to Sonoma State decision

Jewish groups and a handful of state politicians have likewise condemned Sonoma State’s decision, saying that it represents an attack on Israel and the Jewish community.

Some tied the university’s decision to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), which seeks to pressure Israel into protecting Palestinian rights through nonviolent means. It also aims to draw attention to companies seen as complicit in rights abuses in the Palestinian territory.

BDS’s critics, however, consider the movement anti-Semitic for its targeting of Israeli companies and groups.

“Yesterday the President of Sonoma State University aligned the campus with BDS, a movement whose goal is the destruction of Israel, home to 7M Jews,” California state Senator Scott Wiener said in a social media post on Wednesday.

In another post, the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area said the decision by Sonoma State was in “clear violation” of California’s 2016 anti-BDS law. It called on the chancellor of the California State University system — of which Sonoma State is a member — to “rectify” the situation.

However, free speech advocacy groups say that anti-BDS laws suppress criticism of Israel and conflate scrutiny over Israel’s alleged human rights abuses with anti-Semitism.

Protecting students and free speech

The campus protests like the one at Sonoma State have fuelled debate over the distinction between criticism of Israel and anti-Jewish hate.

It also has raised concerns about how to protect free speech rights on campus, while addressing the discomfort some students have expressed towards the protests.

Student protesters have sought to shine a light on the plight facing Palestinian civilians, particularly since the start of Israel’s war in Gaza on October 7.

More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s military offensive in the intervening months, with approximately 1.5 million people internally displaced.

The war has also pushed parts of the Palestinian territory into a state of “full-blown famine“. United Nations experts have warned of a “risk of genocide” in the enclave.

But even before the start of the current war, rights groups like Amnesty International have concluded that Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territory constitute the crime of apartheid.

Still, while the vast majority of pro-Palestine campus protests have been peaceful, fears of anti-Semitism at universities have been running high.

Shortly after the war began in October, for instance, a report emerged that a 24-year-old Jewish student had been assaulted with a stick at the Columbia University campus in New York.

Columbia University’s president, Nemat Shafik, was called before a congressional committee last month to answer questions about the alleged instances of anti-Semitism on her campus, though several US representatives questioned the narrow focus of the hearing.

“Anti-Semitism is not the only form of hatred rising in our schools,” Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat, told the committee.

“Islamophobia and hate crimes against LGBTQ students have also recently spiked. They’ve led to deaths by suicide, harassment. But this committee has not held a single hearing on these issues.”

Indeed, advocates say pro-Palestine protesters have also been subject to a spike in harassment since the war began. At UCLA, for instance, counter-protesters attacked an antiwar encampment, and observers later reported that campus police waited to intervene.

The episode led critics to question which students were being protected — and why.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies