As I was reseated after walking out on apartheid profiteer Shari Arison, I could not help but reflect on the accomplishments of George Mason University’s Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) and the relationships I have built along this journey. SAIA has dramatically changed our campus culture since its foundation one year ago. In the fall of 2011,when I had first enrolled at GMU, there was no visible presence of Palestinian solidarity, but only Zionist pride. Today, a double-sided thirty-by-fifty-five inch banner that bears SAIA’s logo and the BDS call hangs in our university’s main building. On any given day, it is guaranteed that you may see someone wearing a kaffiyeh on campus. Palestine is no longer a word that is hesitantly murmured, rather it is light on the tongues of the student community. SAIA, like all Palestinian solidarity groups, has faced many challenges since its inception, but quickly overcame them and now are a force to be reckoned with. For instance, after our first day of leafleting we were put on probation and threatened with termination before we had even had our first public meeting. The university’s newspaper, The Fourth Estate, was quick to label us an anti-Semitic hate group, which led to some supporters in the periphery to question whether to associate with our group or not. We responded swiftly to the libelous statements and forced the paper to acknowledge that we were an organization whose values were based on human rights and the separation of Zionism from Judaism. I remember when we struggled to fit six people into the cramped meeting rooms of the library for our discussions. When we first formed as a group everyone thought that our aspirations and mission statement were too quixotic and radical.
Today, increasingly more members of the Mason community are recognizing the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis as one of an oppressed and an oppressor, as opposed to the status quo of two “conflicting” people on an equal footing. We can attribute this realization to SAIA’s weekly public meetings and various actions. At GMU this past November, SAIA led a walk out on IDF Sergeant Benjamin Anthony, the founder of the propaganda campaign “Our Soldiers Speak.” Additionally, as a result of our campaign to boycott Sabra hummus the university now offers an alternative hummus anywhere Sabra is sold on campus. While this wasn’t the aim of the campaign, it is still a major victory for BDS as GMU is now the second university to offer a non-Israeli brand as an alternative. The actions and victories of this semester alone were enough to cultivate support for the letter and campaign exposing Arison for her unethical business practices. The university’s concessions on issues regarding Israel legitimize the critique of the regime’s human rights violations, bringing the Mason community one step closer towards divestment.
In the final two weeks of the semester, SAIA led our largest campaign yet exposing this year’s commencement speaker, apartheid profiteer Shari Arison. As I stated in a blog post at The Nation, a letter I coauthored with faculty member Craig Willse exposed billionaire Arison for profiting from the financing of illegal settlements, the construction of the apartheid wall, building a highway that denies access to those of non-Jewish decent- amongst other unethical practices. As the letter circulated and initiated conversations throughout the university, SAIA members plastered the campus with posters exposing Arison. Additionally, SAIA conducted a satirical social media campaign that seized the university’s rebranding hashtag, forcing the university into inactivity. A mock apartheid wall was erected in our quad displaying the message, “NO HONOR IN APARTHEID,” and featuring a large poster asking, “Who Will Mason Honor Next?” surrounded by photos of other dishonorable figures, including Ray Kelly and David Petraeus. One evening, SAIA projected a slide show onto the mock apartheid wall in order to aid the Mason community in visualizing the effects of Arison’s investments. The campaign made its way through every facet of the university, ranging from posters to social media until finally reaching the president’s door. It was not long before the administration met SAIA’s demands to accommodate graduates who wished to walk out on Arison’s commencement speech and receiving of an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. SAIA immediately issued a press release with the administration’s statement and a video calling for all graduates and guests to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian members of our community by walking out on Arison.
Although this wasn`t the first time graduates have walked out in protest of their commencement speaker, I believe it was the first time that a university recognized and made accommodations for such an action.
The Walk Out
On the morning of graduation, as thousands of guests entered the Patriot Center, members of SAIA distributed pamphlets detailing Arison’s unethical investment priorities with an explanation of why students would be walking out during her speech. Additionally, the university added inserts to the ceremony’s program requesting those opposed to Arison’s honoring to express themselves in a manner that would not disrupt the proceedings; for us, this contributed to the reframing of Arison as a political, rather than neutral, figure.
As I took my seat for the first time, I could see guests donning kuffiyehs and the “NO HONOR IN APARTHEID” stickers on the tops of graduates’ caps. I knew that the day was going to be historic no matter how many graduates decided to walk out. As a result of the long history of Zionist intimidation and repression, many Palestinian graduates were hesitant and feared walking out despite the university’s accommodation. Many had feared the effects it would have on their family’s safety in Palestine and worried about being denied entry into their homeland.
I was disgusted by President Cabrera as he proudly stood by Arison’s actions and boasted of their friendship, despite knowing the immorality of her investments. As Arison approached the podium, I stood up and turned around to find that my nausea had completely vanished. Staring back at me were twenty-three graduates, standing in solidarity, ready to walk out on the apartheid profiteer. Although some feared walking out, they clapped and cheered as over seventy-five graduates and guests walked out on Arison’s speech. In our reserved room, new faces, comrades, and three generations of my family greeted me. The walk out embodied the tenacity of the human spirit and the goodness of humankind as people united in the face of injustice.
The university’s historical concession not only marked an opportunity to empower GMU’s graduates. It has furthermore set a precedent for all graduates to demand of their universities. No longer will graduates have to sacrifice their entire graduation experience to take a stand for their beliefs. This campaign accomplished much more than exposing Shari Arison for her hypocrisy, it questioned privatizations effects on our university, united students who had never spoken before, shifted the discourse on Israel, resisted unjust power relationships in the university, and empowered the faculty to demand answers from the administration.
In his press release, President Cabrera disingenuously attributes the community’s concerns over Arison’s honoring as an issue of her nationality, rather than her unethical practices. He attempts to limit these concerns to the Palestinian community, whereas in fact it was received with great dismay from many members of Mason’s community who value and strive to uphold our university’s integrity. Discussions with the administration prove that the university understood that many others in the community saw the choice of Arison as the commencement speaker as problematic. On numerous occasions, the administration voiced their concern as to whether students unaffiliated with SAIA were planning actions of their own during the ceremonies. The campaign empowered students to be proud to stand for justice and speak their minds on a once taboo topic.
The university’s acknowledgement of the controversial nature of Shari Arison’s presence is a part of the growing movement for PACBI, one of the first expressions of this at Mason, and in line with the American Studies Association’s (ASA) recent victory. The letter exposing Arison made its way through the university at a critical time, as the ASA was resolving to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Similar to the ASA resolution, the letter was symbolic of both a call on the university from a Palestinian and solidarity activist. Zionists often accuse the critique of Israeli institutions as “singling-out” Israel, while failing to realize that such actions are a direct response to an oppressed people’s—Palestinians—call. Members of the GMU community who felt Arison’s honoring was an affront were labeled as a “fringe group” by Zionist organizations on campus, just as proponents of the ASA resolution were labeled as a “vocal minority,” despite both campaigns’ overwhelming support. As a Muslim and an Arab, I find this narrative to be quite ironic. When we gain institutional support against injustice, we are considered to be a fringe group amongst the community. However, when non-representative individuals who happen to be Muslim or Arab act, our entire community is blamed and accused of sharing their beliefs. In both instances, our opponents are small in numbers yet due to the pervading Zionist narrative’s accepted legitimacy even a single Zionist’s opposition is weighted heavily. While Zionist influence has dominated the academic stage without opposition for decades, today anytime the Palestinian call comes to light it is often confronted with the liberal notion that there are two sides to every story and we must be inclusive of all narratives. The discussions surrounding the letter did not question whether the claims were unethical, but rather how the university would avoid similar blunders in the future. It is important to note that the discourse is starting to move beyond “questions of fact” regarding the critique of Israel, rather whether these facts are to be accepted as moral. As Noura Erakat states in her piece, “Toward an Ethic of Legitimate Dissent: Academic Boycott at the American Studies Association,” “The battleground is steadily, if slowly, shifting in the United States from fighting for the space to speak about Israel, to openly questioning the United States’ relationship to it.”
Perhaps as monumental as the shift in the discussions regarding Palestine/Israel, was the push back from the faculty on administration to demand answers regarding Arison’s donations. In the past fifteen years, we have witnessed a shift in the leadership of American universities from faculty to administration. As the hierarchy of bureaucracy expands the number of full time professors diminishes, leaving universities with an abundance of assistant and adjunct professors lacking job security. At the faculty level, Assistant Professor and SAIA’s Faculty Advisor Dr. Craig Willse spearheaded the No Honor In Apartheid Campaign. It is important to note that as the paradigm of leadership shifts, faculty who champion the grievances of minorities become vulnerable. In Benjamin Ginsberg’s book, The Fall of Faculty, he notes as a result of this shift these grievances now in the hands of the administration have been reduced to chess pieces in a game of power politics. In response to the letter, New Century College (NCC), the home of Arison’s endowed professorship hosted a Dean’s Council meeting to address the faculty and staff’s concerns. At the council meeting, eight Graduate Teaching Assistants(GTA) co-signed a letter, voicing their concerns, asking that the issues brought up in the letter continue to be discussed as long as necessary to resolve their concerns. The Dean’s Council and attendees found the requests for educational discussions regarding Palestine to be reasonable, resulting in a victory for the GTAs and the No Honor In Apartheid campaign. I am forever grateful to Dr. Willse, the GTAs, and other faculty members who stood in solidarity with my people. To watch the most vulnerable segments of the faculty take a courageous stand and utilize their access to the administration in search for justice was one of the most touching components of the entire campaign. I hope that our victory leads to not only justice in Palestine, but also justice within the university, as both Palestinians and faculty take back the autonomy that has been stolen from us over the years.
This day was not only a major landmark in my life, but it was a historic moment for solidarity activists everywhere. I could not be happier with the way I ended my undergraduate career. I watched my family swell with pride as they stopped Arison from sullying our day. Most friends support you on your graduation day by staying for hours to watch you walk across the stage for a mere two seconds. SAIA did more than that, they dedicated hours of work to the campaign when they should have been studying. They made my graduation and this year unforgettable.
One day when Israeli apartheid ends, George Mason University will take honor in being host to SAIA, but President Cabrera will never have that honor, for he will be forever shamed by his allegiance to profits rather than people.
[This article is co-published with Mondoweiss.]