Tuesday, March 3, 2009

At Columbia University:

“I think we have a very good reason to single out the actions of Israel...”


"Group Promotes Palestinian Rights"

March 3, 2009

COLUMBIA SPECTATOR (Columbia University; New York City)

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While January’s wave of student activism surrounding the Gaza conflict has abated, another is on the rise with Monday’s launch of a Palestinian rights campaign.

A group of Columbia students has announced the formation of the Columbia Palestine Forum, a campaign intended to gather support for Palestinian rights to education and self-determination. Inspired by student activism at other colleges, group members will hold a teach-in and a rally this week and will have released a list of demands that calls on Columbia to take a stand in defense of Palestinian students.

“President [Lee] Bollinger in the past has denounced a call for an academic boycott of Israel but never acknowledged the fact that Palestinians don’t have a right to education due to Israel’s occupation,” said Akua Gyamerah, Mailman School of Public Health, ’10, one of the group’s organizers and a member of Barnard-Columbia International Socialist Organization. “We hope to get the attention of the University and have the University acknowledge us as a serious group.”

The campaign’s leaders, who were also a part of the Columbia Community in Standing with Gaza group during the January rallies, have been planning the campaign since the start of the semester. Through conference calls organized by the Campus Antiwar Network, group members have been communicating with students from Hampshire College and the University of Rochester, who persuaded their schools to divest some of the companies that profit from the conflict.

The demands call on the University to grant a number of annual scholarships for Palestinian students to attend Columbia, to partner with and provide aid to a Palestinian university, to fully disclose its budget and endowment in order to ascertain that tuition money is not being used “to violate people’s human rights,” and to formally state support for the Palestinian right to self-determination.

The University has acknowledged in a statement that it has yet to hear these demands from the group. “Since this is the first we have heard of these particular demands from any students at Columbia, we can’t comment specifically,” Brian Connolly, associate vice president for media relations said in a statement on behalf of the University. “But it is worth noting that our University Senate ... is provided regular, detailed updates on the university’s budget and finances, which are also publicly reported each year.” Connolly also pointed to the University’s “actively engaged” Socially Responsible Investing committee and said that “we welcome qualified Palestinian students to Columbia and work with them, as we do with all international students and scholars, to facilitate visas and provide appropriate financial aid.”

Group members hope to read their demands to the Columbia administration at noon on Thursday following a Wednesday discussion forum for students, faculty, and New-York-area activists. Members have said they have not yet determined to which administrators they will be addressing their remarks.

While group members have said that their campaign is generating support, not all students agree with the group’s premise. “This is a deliberate attempt to single out one country, one group of people—Israel—among many other nations,” Jacob Shapiro, GS/JTS ’10 and president of LionPAC, a pro-Israel student group, said of the campaign’s calls for divestment from the occupation. “I think the effort is totally unreasonable and misguided and in many cases factually inaccurate,” added Shapiro, who is also an editor in Spectator’s sports section. “The University’s job is not to condemn countries.”

Yet group members have defended their reasons for specifically addressing their campaign to Israel, stating that recent and past events have motivated students to take action.

“I think we have a very good reason to single out the actions of Israel,” said first-year GSAS student Matt Swagler, one of the group’s organizers and a member of the Barnard-Columbia International Socialist Organization. “I think there’s a very long history of the dispossession of the Palestinian people and the very recent destruction of Gaza.”

The group will be holding a mass organizing meeting next week centered on the list of demands and the topics of transparency and divestment. “As a group, we’re looking to make this a long-term project,” Swagler said. “The idea of this campaign isn’t that it’s going to be something that fades away at the end of the semester.”