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February 18, 2024

Statement: Claremont FJP Responds to ASPC Referendum and Pomona College President Gabi Starr’s Email

The boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement is a Palestinian-led, non-violent movement that aims to pressure Israel to cease violating […]

Claremont Faculty for Justice in Palestine

The boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement is a Palestinian-led, non-violent movement that aims to pressure Israel to cease violating basic Palestinian human rights and to comply with international law. This Palestinian plea for international recognition of their equal rights via the vehicle of BDS began nearly twenty years ago and has been endorsed by 170+ Palestinian civil society organizations. These issues are not new, but have sadly been debated and discussed for decades while Palestinian lives have been considered expendable under Israeli and US policy, as seen in the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza that the world’s top court (the International Court of Justice) has warned poses urgent, real, and imminent risk of an unfolding genocide. Responding to the Palestinian civil society initiative to support BDS is one of the few mechanisms that people of conscience around the world can adopt to stand in solidarity with Palestinians under assault. It is time to take this step to enact social and institutional change for those without power and for those facing ongoing threats to rights and to life. For U.S. citizens and U.S. institutions, BDS also offers taxpayers a means to express dissent with our own complicity in genocide and to signal to our government the need for change. 

Students – and indeed people in all walks of life in the U.S. right now – are looking to see action from their political and institutional leaders to end the U.S.-backed horror that is unfolding in Gaza. Absent clear principled stands for Palestinian equality and freedom, any response from our U.S. based institutions in this moment is inadequate. As we have learned from history, from human rights lawyers and advocates, and from scholars of genocide, genocide is a process, not a singular event. When faced with its development, our “neutrality” makes us directly complicit, especially when our own government enables the crime. This complicity is all the more apparent if we have before us a mechanism to aid those directly harmed by Israeli government and military actions – as we do in the call for BDS – and yet, choose not to use it.

We note with alarm President Starr’s email of Feb 16, especially her statement that Pomona’s student referendum, and BDS efforts more generally, “raise the specter of antisemitism.” Actually, Starr is the one intentionally raising this specter in her email. The BDS movement is explicit in its rejection of all forms of racism and antisemitism. BDS is a political tactic aimed at the Israeli state and the international corporations and institutions that are directly complicit in the Israeli state’s systematic discrimination against (e.g., apartheid) and violence towards Palestinians, whether in Israel, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, or those living in exile and refused the right of return. As the Claremont Faculty for Justice in Palestine noted in our Principles of Unity, criticism of the state of Israel is not antisemitic, as no government is beyond criticism. This is an elementary point. It is also basic civics that people have a special responsibility to criticize their own government’s policy – for U.S. citizens and residents, this includes criticizing U.S.foreign policy that has singled out Israel for unparalleled support as it commits decades of human rights violations against the Palestinians. 

President Starr’s insinuation that this referendum singles out Israel and is therefore antisemitic is a tired tactic used to silence critics of Israel, smear boycott supporters, and deflect attention from Israel’s current violent assault against Palestinians in Gaza. This referendum asks students their views on participating in an international solidarity movement that addresses U.S. complicity and investment in Israel’s apartheid system and ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians at a moment when U.S. taxpayers are directly implicated in the unfolding genocide in Gaza. Starr’s email causes grave harm by smearing Pomona student government leaders and the students advancing these efforts, and erasing the voices of numerous Jewish students, staff, and faculty who have argued that their Jewish identity and faith have been co-opted for the purposes of genocide. At this point, it is hard to see this erasure as a naive mistake; the consortial chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace made this point to all Claremont Presidents last November, writingThose who present justice for Palestinians and safety for Jews as opposing issues are misguided at best. At worst, they are engaged in a bad-faith effort to silence activists who support Palestinian freedom and safety. They do not speak for us.” 

As members of an educational community, we bear particular responsibility to stand with our Palestinian academic colleagues as they seek, in absolute desperation, to respond to a state of total war on scholars, students, and institutions of higher learning in Gaza. Though President Starr’s email invites the College to engage in academic discussion as a substitute for political action, we cannot “engage” with our Palestinian colleagues in Gaza if literally nothing remains of Gaza’s basic infrastructure and educational landscape. This clear military strategy of scholasticide stands in sharp relief if one imagines President Starr following her own advice and “engaging” with her counterpart, the head of the oldest Gaza university, Dr. Sufyan Tayeh. She would be unable to do this, because he was killed (with his whole family) by Israeli strikes, and his campus (like all Gaza campuses) was bombed. The same thought exercise with a similar conclusion could be put to each of us as faculty, as Israeli attacks have murdered scores of professors, hardly a surprise when more than 1 out of 100 Gazans have been killed so far. 

Certainly, in contrast to Starr’s suggestion that the referendum replaces debate and dialogue, as academics we welcome sustained discussion, as do our students. Fortunately, a College, or consortial community, is not defined by one person’s opinion, even if that person is the President. Since October 7, 2023, countless conversations have unfolded across the consortium in both structured and organic ways. Faculty and students at the Claremont Colleges have created spaces for more engagement, discussion, and action and have thereby modeled what it means to take an ethical stand on global events. Teach-ins, talks, discussions, and fact sheets have shown the way forward for open inquiry and dialogue. There is no either/or: robust, respectful, and ready discussion should not be presented as a substitute for principled democratic participation, via debate and action. 

Student-led referendums are also part of democratic debate, as the FAQs from the student referendum organizers indicate. These FAQs are one, amongst many, mechanisms to correct false statements in Starr’s email and its role in contributing to the purposefully designed misinformation that circulates about BDS. Here, we highlight one crucial point: unlike the boycott of South Africa, BDS explicitly targets institutions, not individuals. Hence, Starr’s statement that adopting BDS would exclude Israeli students from enrolling at Pomona is false.

Finally, participants in all campus events have been exceedingly clear about what these actions are for, not only what they are against. They have been undertaken for humanity, for a language of universal rights that is not a language of privilege but a language for all, including Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinian life has been deemed dispensable by many world actors. As an educational community committed to the liberal arts as a pathway to knowledge and empathy, we cannot stand by in silence.

We encourage students and faculty to continue to read, learn, and attend teach-ins and other events about these issues. The Claremont FJP has compiled a list of resources that may be helpful (contact us at claremontfjp@proton.me) and we are happy to respond to requests to engage directly with the deep knowledge base we have built over our professional careers. 

Claremont Faculty for Justice in Palestine Steering Collective

This statement was sent to Undercurrents by FJP. A full PDF version can be found here.

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Undercurrents reports on labor, Palestine liberation, prison abolition and other community organizing at and around the Claremont Colleges.

Issue 1 / Spring 2023

Setting the Standard

How Pomona workers won a historic $25 minimum wage; a new union in Claremont; Tony Hoang on organizing

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