"The call for decolonisation is coming from Palestine" - Webinar on Challenging Israeli apartheid on campus

January 16, 2021

Rafeef Ziadah, Drashti Brahmbhatt, Jeremy Phillips, Anwar N., and Camila Mattar Hazbun discussed campaigns organised to end complicity with Israeli apartheid as part of the students’ conference, “Decolonising our campuses: students unite against oppression”, organized from 13-15 November, 2020.

Dr. Rafeef Ziadah, Palestinian academic, poet and activist, opened the panel by explaining how the pandemic has laid bare existing inequalities and destructive forces of racial capitalism, and how states have quickly moved to use this as an opportunity to buttress militarism, surveillance and privatization. And university administrations have followed suit, forcing students to pay tuition and rent. Therefore organizing during this time is even more important so that decolonizing our campuses is not just a metaphor for tinkering with the curriculum, but that we see fundamental shifts, we build intersectional alliances, as well as see the links between climate justice, social justice, economic justice and freedom for all. Rafeef also added how important it is that such a call for decolonizing is coming from Palestine- right from the space which has been resisting Israeli settler colonialism for decades.

Ziadah also discussed how Israeli universities have played a key role in planning, implementing and justifying Israel’s system of occupation and apartheid, and also maintain a uniquely close relationship with the Israeli military-security industry. Israeli universities are also responsible for producing weapons but also moral and legal arguments for Israel's illegal policies. This is why Palestinian civil society has called for a boycott of these complicit institutions, shedding light on their deep, ongoing complicity. People from across the world have signed up to this call, as have various academic associations. The PACBI call is for institutional, not individual boycott. The academic boycott campaign also allows us to show that universities are not ivory towers, but built on interconnections with settler colonialism and racial capitalism. 

Jeremy Phillips, former Chairperson of the Palestine Solidarity Forum at the University of Cape Town (South Africa), talked about the campaign developed at the University of Cape Town at the end of 2016 which managed to attract national and international attention to the situation of the Palestinian people. The campaign had two main objectives: mobilizing for an academic boycott of Israel and creating a platform for consciousness building on Palestine on campus. The campaign managed to get the academic freedom committee to call on the university not to enter into relations with Israeli universities based in the occupied Palestinian territory or involved in enabling Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. Through the senate it achieved the status of soft policy. Later the university council adopted a separate resolution condemning apartheid but delayed a final resolution on ties with Israeli universities to the future. All this was achieved with four years of campaigning. 

Drashti Brahmbhatt, organizer from the Brown Divest campaign calling upon Brown University (US) to divest from companies complicit in Israel’s apartheid and occupation, explained how undergraduate students mobilised to end complicity. She discussed how visualizing socio economic change and being able to contribute to that as students are difficult, but divestments are a key way of doing both, where collective action can stop companies from profiting from human rights violations. 

Students prepared detailed criteria to classify products and services that maintain settlements, the apartheid wall and the occupation. Many of these were present in their immediate context. For example,  Caterpillar, whose equipment has been used by the Israeli occupation to destroy many Palestinian homes and trees since 1967, was also present on the Brown University campus. They focused on events and education efforts and on building alliances with campaigns for solidarity with Kashmir, rights of Brown immigrants, against surveillance, the use of tear gas to quell protests, the US- Mexico border wall, and more. 

In March 2019, the student body voted for divestment, and hundreds of faculty and alumni supported it. After the referendum, campaigners started the logistical work of preparing a recommendation to the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies (ACCRIP), which in turn would send its own recommendation to the university president. In Spring 2020, ACCRIP published a report recommending divestments (voted with a two-thirds majority) and stating that Brown must divest from any company profiting from Israeli occupation. 

Camilla Mattar Hazbun, Palestinian Chilean lawyer with a degree in Human Rights from the Universidad Austral de Chile, shared the experiences of three Chilean universities campaigning to become Apartheid Free Zones. 

Students and faculty members at two universities in Santiago de Chile and a third in Valdivia, south of Chile, have campaigned on academic boycotts and declaring their campuses as Apartheid Free Zones. Camila emphasized how these campaigns took time and many discussions with all the different faculties and student groups involved as well as with wider civil society groups fighting for justice, health, education, natural resources and human rights. 

In 2019, the campaign at the University of Chile had to be halted until 2020 due to the mass protests on the street. The campaign continued online, trying to get the university to cut ties with Israeli universities. In August 2020, a student referendum, that coincided with the student federation elections, was supported by the majority of the student body.

Anwar N, Palestinian-Italian student and activist explained the work the student group Progetto Palestina has done at the University of Turin to promote the academic boycott of complicit Israeli universities. Since 2016, the group has organised academic seminars, film screenings, demonstrations and other actions to promote the campaign. About 350 Italian professors and academics have endorsed a call calling for an end to collaboration with Technion in Haifa. Over 1,500 students have engaged with the campaign and there was a public petition calling on the university to end the collaboration. Even though the academic senate hasn’t ended the university’s links with Technion, the campaign managed to create huge support. The campus was covered with brochures. The students council supported the academic boycott including ending ties with Technion. 

The speakers also mentioned how building links with feminist, LGBT and anti-racist groups has helped when universities denied spaces or otherwise censored events.They also reminded us how it is important to bear in mind that bureaucracy is the university's defence mechanism. Students are there for a set amount of time, and this transitory nature is an impediment. Therefore it is important to build a sustainable campaign so that new students can take over when one batch moves on. Last but not least, it is important for student groups not to reveal all their cards at once and plan gradual and strategic campaigns. 

If you missed the webinar you can still watch it here

January 16, 2021


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