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WA Students Say Gaza Encampment Has Been Most Valuable Part of Their Education

A solidarity encampment in Washington State is continuing to press Western Washington University to divest from Israel.

The Popular University for Gaza encampment list of demands.

Part of the Series

Police have forcibly dismantled Gaza solidarity encampments at universities across the U.S., including those in Columbia University, UC Berkeley and University of Michigan, yet the encampment at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham, Washington, is still going strong.

Students constructed the encampment on May 14 after hearing university administrators’ disappointing response to a list of demands that students had submitted on May 3.

A group of seven students from WWU, including members from the Arab Students Association (ASA) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) boards, convened with President Sabah Randhawa and Chief Diversity Officer Jacqueline Hughes on May 9 to address the list of student demands that had been submitted on May 3.

The administration’s response was disappointing on multiple fronts. First, they declined to issue a public apology to Arab students for past harms, claiming it would cause further division within the community. President Randhawa acknowledged that WWU does not directly invest in companies listed on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) list, yet was not willing to provide transparency regarding all university investments. Regarding severing academic ties with Boeing, the administration expressed worries about impeding academic freedom tied to research grants and job opportunities. Additionally, they refused to permanently cancel the university’s study abroad program in Haifa, Israel, or adopt a clear definition of antisemitism which distinguishes it from anti-Zionism.

Despite some concessions, such as pledging to raise awareness with federal or state representatives about the situation in Gaza and offering personal donations to humanitarian aid, concrete actions were lacking. While a meeting with the provost and dean was proposed, no firm commitments were made regarding additional positions or workshops.

Lastly, the administration’s suggestion to establish a process for student-led divestment requests was seen as a diversion from the urgent needs of the moment and was deemed insufficient by student representatives.

In response to the administration’s lack of a reasonable response, at approximately 4:30 am on May 14, a coalition of WWU students, including ASA and JVP, set up a Popular University for Gaza on a large lawn of the Pacific Northwest campus. This action was undertaken in solidarity with the Palestinian people, who have been enduring seven months of genocide and scholasticide perpetrated by Israel. This encampment also represents an escalation of a years-long effort on campus to urge WWU to divest from weapons manufacturers and companies named on the BDS list.

Truthout interviewed Reina, a Palestinian American student from Seattle majoring in Elementary Education, and Sonja, an Interdisciplinary Studies major from Waldron Island, Washington, representing ASA and JVP at WWU, respectively. Both students requested to withhold their last names in line with the encampment’s safety protocols.

Yoav Litvin: How do student encampments impact the ongoing genocide in Gaza?

Reina: Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people dates back to 1948 and before. Student encampments serve crucial short-term but also long-term roles in raising awareness about the Palestinian plight, particularly within mainstream and elite U.S. institutions. Given Israel’s dependence on American support, divesting from apartheid Israel, as advocated by the BDS movement, marks a significant stride forward. The objective is to leverage the current momentum and redirect the focus to the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This strategy (employing boycotts) is not novel; it echoes past movements such as those against apartheid South Africa and the Vietnam War. Leveraging this momentum, we seek to enact enduring changes in our investment practices, addressing the issue of student turnover on college campuses and its impact on systemic change. By introducing ethical standards and challenging the status quo, we aim to divest from prison labor and weapons manufacturers, radicalizing a new generation of activists. While our actions may not immediately halt the genocide, they are aimed at reshaping [the U.S.’s] support for Israel in the future. Our goal extends beyond a ceasefire; we strive for an end to colonization, viewing this process as a collective effort of which we are a small part.

Sonja: People are increasingly recognizing the interconnectedness Palestinians and their allies have long emphasized. This encompasses understanding the ties between Zionism and imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy. Moreover, there’s a growing comprehension of Zionist propaganda’s manipulation of Judaism, falsely equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, when in reality, anti-Zionism stands for anti-racism and solidarity against white supremacy and settler colonialism, while Zionism promotes antisemitism. Universities charge exorbitant tuition fees, burdening students with substantial debts upon graduation. Rather than investing in weapons manufacturers, prison labor and police militarization, schools should prioritize supporting their students.

How have your spaces changed as a result of the genocide in Gaza and the response to it?

Reina: Student protests have created a hope that I’ve never experienced. After 76 years of apartheid and genocide, this is a welcome development, though it has not achieved significant results as far as the Gaza genocide. At least not yet. My family back home in Beit Jala, Palestine, are grateful that students are exposing the truth, yet they remain cautious.

Sonja: Bellingham is a predominantly white, liberal college town. At WWU and Bellingham at large, a conversation that was largely relegated to the shadows of progressive spaces has come into the center and become a litmus test. These conversations are now being had in Jewish spaces whereas before they’ve been pretty much taboo. My Judaism is rooted in a commitment to ethical culture and a long tradition of resistance and action, not participation in an exclusivist, racist and violent project.

How has the student encampment related to off-campus grassroots struggles?

Sonja and Reina: It feels like there is a false dichotomy that positions student protest [are] apart from grassroots struggle. While we acknowledge our privilege in being students, we also want to recognize the incredibly diverse group of students and community members on the whole who have shown up, participated and supported us from afar. From the beginning of this process, we have expressed a commitment to this diversity and solidarity across differences. Building power is about connecting struggles, and in our movement, we have people from the student union on campus (WAWU), different members of ethnic student clubs on campus, students from a large range of economic backgrounds, etc. Far from being apart from the dynamics and realities of the “real world” we are a microcosm of it. Because of this, we have strived to address how these marginalized identities will be differently impacted by the risks we are taking on. This looks like many things but it centers a commitment to caring for everyone in our community before, during and after this action.

It’s crucial to consider the potential counterproductivity of these protests if they merely result in physical confrontations with the police. We’re mindful such events can demobilize people if they lead to arrests and brutality without adequate support or care afterward. Thus, we’re focused on fostering long-term community support for students who may face these consequences. We’re also exploring the connections between housing and homelessness in Bellingham, recognizing the broader implications of encampments in our city. Concrete acts of solidarity, like donating our tents to houseless individuals after the protest, are essential. We’re aware of our privilege to leave when the school year ends, unlike those who face ongoing challenges in the community. We also recognize students with different financial realities are at high risk of housing instability depending on how the university administration and Bellingham at large react to us. We’re committed to maintaining alliances with grassroots movements and avoiding actions that alienate them. Our goal is to strike a balance that amplifies the voices of all affected communities.

How has your respective education at WWU informed your activism?

Sonja: Western [Washington University] has ignored Palestine and calls for divestment in the past and has continued to ignore it during this most recent escalation of the genocide in Gaza. The most impactful part of my education at Western has been the opportunity to connect what I am learning with the struggles and issues that impact the communities I am a part of. Though this has happened through the classroom on some occasions, these avenues for action have been sparked through relationships with my peers; in independent study projects with other students and some incredible faculty, I’ve been able to leverage my education to learn about topics that directly inform and impact how I organize and navigate the world. This includes studying abolition while working on a campaign against the Whatcom County Jail and helping to restart the JVP chapter at Western as part of my senior project.

Reina: I have learned key concepts in my classes that have helped me engage in activism, but more than that, it’s the people I’ve been surrounded by in the past few months who have truly impacted how I engage in this work. I’ve learned so much more from my peers than from faculty, staff, or any class. It is the individuals around me who have inspired, taught and guided me in the right direction when it comes to organizing. These individuals have primarily been students, and the more I work alongside them, the more I experience growth and motivation.

We, the students, want to use our knowledge and voices to tell everyone that they cannot just stand idly by while the innocent die and the oppressors face no consequences. We must hold people, governments and countries accountable for their actions. We do not want to come of age in a world where racism, genocide and erasure are the norm. It has to end.

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