California University Will Heed Students' Call to Boycott Israeli Institutions - Latest Global News

California University Will Heed Students’ Call to Boycott Israeli Institutions

Sonoma State University, a public school in Northern California, has said it will not partner with Israeli universities, answering a call from pro-Palestinian student groups pushing for a boycott of Israeli companies and institutions amid the Gaza war.

The decision announced Tuesday follows a recent wave of campus protests that have spread across the United States, with encampments and demonstrations at schools including Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

As part of their demands, student activists aimed to sever schools’ ties with academic institutions and companies seen as complicit in Israel’s war and decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In an email to students Tuesday, Sonoma State President Mike Lee said the school had reached an agreement with protesters who set up a camp on campus three weeks ago.

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

In exchange for the concessions, student activists agreed to dismantle the tent group on campus by Wednesday evening.

Many universities have responded to the demands of anti-war activists with police action against camps. But those efforts have done little to dampen calls for divestment, and campus activists have compared their efforts to historic student protests against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa.

Several pro-Palestinian university camps were disbanded after negotiations over divestment demands with the administration.

In late April, for example, protesters dismantled their tents at Brown University in Rhode Island after the Ivy League school’s board of governors approved divestment in a vote that October.

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

Israel receives $3.8 billion in military aid from the United States each year, and U.S. lawmakers, backed by pro-Israel groups, have moved to punish and even criminalize calls to boycott Israel.

In Texas, for example, Republican Governor Greg Abbott replied Addressing students’ divestment demands directly, he said earlier this month: “That will NEVER happen.” Under his leadership, the state passed a law banning government agencies from contracting with companies that boycott Israel.

Backlash to Sonoma State’s decision

Jewish groups and a handful of state politicians have also condemned the Sonoma state decision, saying it is an attack on Israel and the Jewish community.

Some linked the university’s decision to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to pressure Israel to protect the rights of Palestinians through nonviolent means. The aim is also to draw attention to companies that are considered complicit in rights violations in the Palestinian territory.

However, critics of BDS say the movement is anti-Semitic because it targets 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 seven million Jews,” California State Senator Scott Wiener said Wednesday in a social media post.

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

But free speech advocacy groups say anti-BDS laws stifle criticism of Israel and conflate the investigation into Israel’s alleged human rights abuses with anti-Semitism.

Protecting students and free expression

Campus protests like the one at Sonoma State have fueled debate about the difference between criticism of Israel and anti-Jewish hatred.

It also raised concerns about how to protect freedom of expression on campus, while responding to discomfort some students have expressed about the protests.

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

In recent months, more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed and around 1.5 million people internally displaced in Israel’s military offensive.

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

But even before the current war began, human rights groups such as Amnesty International concluded that Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territories constituted the crime of apartheid.

But even though the vast majority of pro-Palestinian campus protests have been peaceful, fears of anti-Semitism at universities are high.

For example, shortly after the war began in October, it was reported that a 24-year-old Jewish student was attacked with a stick on the campus of Columbia University in New York.

Columbia University President Nemat Shafik was summoned before a congressional committee last month to answer questions about alleged incidents of anti-Semitism on her campus, although several U.S. officials questioned the narrow focus of the hearing.

“Anti-Semitism is not the only form of hate that is increasing in our schools,” Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez told the committee.

“Islamophobia and hate crimes against LGBTQ students have also increased recently. They have resulted in deaths from suicide and harassment. But this committee has not held a single hearing on these issues.”

In fact, advocates say pro-Palestinian protesters have also faced a rise in harassment since the war began. At UCLA, for example, counter-protesters attacked an anti-war camp, and observers later reported that campus police were waiting to intervene.

The incident prompted critics to question which students were protected — and why.

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