THE BLOG

Free Dinners and Free Trips Won't Prevent a Free Palestine

02/27/2015 02:49 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

Student leaders across the country are urging their universities to divest from companies violating human rights in Occupied Palestinian Territories. Two-thirds of University of California campuses have passed divestment resolutions to this effect. In early February, the University of California Student Association voted to endorse divestment with a count of 9-1-6. And in a historic vote on February 17, the Undergraduate Senate at Stanford University 10-4-1 to pass a historic resolution to divest from multinational corporations that violate human rights in the occupation of Palestine. Northwestern University's student senate passed a similar divestment resolution one day later.

As members of Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine (SOOP), which brought the resolution, it is important for us to acknowledge how the power dynamics behind the scenes of campus divestment will continue to affect our campaign and similar campaigns around the country. Our grassroots student movements for Palestinian rights confront significant and sometimes overwhelming institutional clout, but these recent victories demonstrate that the tide is turning.

As soon as our Stanford divestment resolution became public, institutions throughout campus and beyond mobilized to suppress the vote. A prominent professor from the Hoover Institute at Stanford offered a free meal to the Senate and spoke privately with nine of its members regarding divestment one week before the divestment hearing. According to a senator, the professor's office paid for the dinner.

Engaging critically with professors in class or office hours is an important aspect of being a student; however, this professor's decision to utilize his influence as a faculty member to interfere in student politics (and using university money to do so) was ethically concerning. As a former undergraduate senator, and as members of SOOP, we think this action is an abuse of power. Very few students would say no to a dinner from a prominent academic and dominant campus figure. While some senators raised questions to the professor about the occupation, most students would default to the traditional student-teacher relationship and feel less comfortable pushing back.

The professor's action is troubling because it is a microcosm of broader institutional attempts to stifle campus discussion of Palestinian rights. For example, over 240 students submitted requests for legal support last year. These students cited causes like possible censorship to Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, an organization that aids those who advocate for Palestinian rights.

At Stanford and on campuses across the country, national and international institutions exert outside influence on student politics. In the same week as the faculty dinner, the Executive Director of Hillel at Stanford began soliciting donations for a "Student Mobilization Fund" to oppose divestment at Stanford. The mobilization fund suggested minimum donation of $100, with an upward cap of $5,000. The anti-divestment campaign wielded these financial resources to purchase paid advertisements on Facebook and the Stanford Daily.

Additional institutional support came from the Israeli Consulate and groups including AIPAC and StandWithUs, which Hillel at Stanford thanked for the resources they contributed to the student campaign the day before the vote. In addition to donative resources, Hillel at Stanford's Jewish Agency Israel Fellow actively participated in what was publicized as a student campaign.

In another example, one of our undergraduate senators took a paid trip to Israel over winter break. Not only are such trips disrespectful to the millions of Palestinian refugees, they also represent external influence on student affairs magnitudes more inappropriate than a free dinner. In the email thanking outside groups for support, Hillel at Stanford said the senator "could ultimately be one of the swing votes" as a result of his participation on this trip. This senator ultimately voted no.

This interference in student politics from outside groups mirrors what happens at other universities. Student representative participation in free trips to Israel came under heavy scrutiny last year at UCLA, where students argued free trips from organizations that oppose divestment were effectively bribery for votes. Emails leaked last week show that the Israeli Consulate and StandWithUs attempted to thwart Northwestern's divestment vote.

Students at nearby DePaul University passed a divestment referendum in May, despite paid StandWithUs staff representing themselves as students and canvassing against the motion. Last fall, Hillel at UCLA came under fire for hiring a DC-based PR firm to counter Students for Justice in Palestine's divestment organizing on campus. And most recently, the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo organized against the student resolution at the University of Toledo, whose student government shut down a hearing on divestment on February 18.

Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine is a grassroots movement of 19 student organizations committed to racial, economic, gender, sexual liberation and justice. This grassroots focus is the case for all campus divestment campaigns in the US. What SOOP lacks in financial connections and institutional power is made up for in people-power. We transparently fundraised using GoFundMe, earning $1263 from 35 people over a two month span.

Representatives of the anti-divestment campaign misrepresented the amount of campus support they have, with Hillel at Stanford advertising over 3,000 signatories. Yet, an email from Hillel's Israel Fellow four days before the hearing revealed that the anti-divestment petition had only 319 total student signatures.

The SOOP petition currently has almost 1,700 student signatures, representing an unprecedented amount of engagement on this issue at Stanford. In contrast to the anti-divestment campaign, the breakdown of our signatories has always been transparent. Our numbers are in line with demographic trends that show the occupation of Palestine is unjustified to our generation.

Both at Stanford and across US colleges, it is important to note that the majority of counter-organizing we experienced came from non-student actors, whose actions have not been widely-known. These actors and institutions should respect the autonomy of student politics.

Despite the entrenched institutional backing of anti-divestment sentiment, students will continue mobilizing against the occupation of Palestine. That a majority of our senate supported SOOP's resolution in spite of such counter-organizing is indicative of a paradigm shift. Divestment is the new norm. No amount of fundraising, free dinners, or free trips can prevent the inevitable freedom of Palestinians.

To learn more about Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine, check out soopalestine.org.