As the sound of the group’s megaphone reverberated across Low Plaza Thursday afternoon, the Columbia Palestine Forum presented its demands to the administration.
But many of the protesters doubted their actions would have an immediate effect on University policy, acknowledging the long road ahead.
The event, called by its organizers a Speakout for Transparency and Divestment, was the first public demonstration by the recently formed Columbia Palestine Forum, and included participants from a wide array of student activist groups. Addressing a fluctuating audience of close to 30 people, about 15 protestors held signs in front of Alma Mater as spokespeople explained their demands for University divestment from companies that profit from the Gaza conflict, and, as stated on the group’s Web site, a “public biannual disclosure of the University operating budget and endowment.”
Meanwhile, a smaller group of students affiliated with LionPAC, a pro-Israel campus group, stood silently on the margins, handing out pamphlets and unfurling several large Israeli flags.
First up on the megaphone was Rahel Aima, CC ’10, who spoke on behalf of the Columbia Palestine Forum and drew broad parallels between current activist efforts and the protests that roiled Columbia in the late 1960s.
“The U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam is now the U.S.-funded and supplied Israeli imperialist war in Palestine. Columbia University’s racist expansion into Morningside Park is now Columbia University’s racist expansion into West Harlem,” Aima said, comparing Columbia’s imminent expansion into Manhattanville to the University’s ill-fated plan to build a gym in Morningside park in the 1960s. Citing a list of alleged Israeli atrocities, Aima accused University President Lee Bollinger of succumbing to “right-wing and Zionist pressures” by failing to condemn Israel’s recent actions in Gaza, and said that the University is not practicing the progressive ideals it purports to hold.
Aima’s speech was followed by others from members of the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, the International Socialist Organization, and Students for International Indigenous Rights, who lent their groups’ support to the efforts of the Columbia Palestine Forum. Also speaking was Tarek Ismail, a first-year Columbia law student who gave his own perspective on the issue of transparency.
“Everyone has a vested interest in what we’re requesting today,” he said. “If you don’t want to make this about Palestine, then don’t make it about Palestine for you, but we have a right to know where our money is going.”
As the demonstrators spoke, members of LionPAC circulated around the crowd, offering anti-divestment leaflets to passers-by. “Obviously any student has the right to express themselves and express their opinion,” Ilana Arje, BC ’10 said. But she said that the Columbia Palestine Forum’s comparison of Israel’s government to the South African apartheid regime was “factually inaccurate, inappropriate, and, as President Bollinger said, ‘grotesque,’” referencing Bollinger’s comments that have earned him the moniker PrezGro among some activist circles.
Sara Ashman, BC ’10 and political affairs director of LionPAC, echoed these concerns. “We don’t have an official position other than to say that we think divestment from Israel is wrong and we think that comparing Israel to an apartheid state is factually incorrect,” she said.
After their speeches, the demonstrators read a list of their demands, and proceeded up the steps of Low Library to deliver a written copy to Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks. Demonstrators said that Dirks had been sent by the administration to accept the list on its behalf.
The mood among the demonstrators was positive, but they were less than optimistic when asked about the prospects of immediate success. “No, absolutely not,” said Nancy Elshami, BC ’10, when asked whether she thought Bollinger would accept the group’s demands. “I think that President Bollinger has a very clear history of siding with the dominant tide.” Nonetheless, Elshami, who had just joined the group, saw Thursday’s event as a good first step. “You just have to have some kind of mass mobilization. You have to gather a larger backing behind your cause.”