Where is the BDS Student Activism?

Ola Alhaj Hasan
Staff Writer

Two months into the Fall 2017 semester, it became worth noting that certain student calls for action to cut ties with corporations that benefit from the Zionist occupation of Palestine are missing from AUB’s campus.

These calls have happened in recurring waves within the last few years, mostly organized by a student group called ‘AUB Divest’. Members of this group would often organize to disrupt the presence of certain companies, such as HP, Unilever, Nestle, and L’Oreal at job fairs, making it clear that supporters of Zionism are unwelcome on campus.

There was also an active movement under the name of “Students Against Nestle” over the course of the past academic year,  during Fall and Spring of 2016, organizing a couple of events every month through social media, and inviting the university to terminate its contract with the Nestle Toll House coffee shop on lower campus.

In considering the calls such as those voiced against Nestle, and reading them seriously, and to see why they are quickly fading away from campus activism, it is important to locate them within a wider context.

The divestment movements in AUB are a subset of larger global student movements. Ever since the Palestinian civil society officially called for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel in 2005, students from all over the world have mobilized to endorse it.

That being said, “Students Against Nestle” shared an online petition in Fall 2016 through its Facebook page, stating reasons to cut ties between AUB and the Toll House.

The first reason was the corporation’s support of apartheid, through setting up their factories on Palestinian land that was appropriated by Israeli forces, and the fact that Nestle has received the “Jubilee Award” given by Israel in recognition of investments that strengthen its economy.

The petition also cited other reasons concerning ethical consumption, such as Nestle’s practice of child slavery and its marketing of baby foods in breach of international marketing standards.  

In an interview with Outlook, Bachir Nakhal, a recent AUB graduate and a participant in the “Students Against Nestle” movement, said, “students were threatened with Dean’s warnings during one of the sit-ins at the Toll House. One administrator tried to compare the nonviolence of our sit-in to ‘the nonviolent process of Zionists building settlements in Palestine’, thereby deeming our sitting at the entrance of the Toll House café [as] ‘the same [kind of] project’ as settler colonialism.”

“The administration blamed us for not having gone through ‘diplomatic ways and channels’ even though we had already sent them our online petition in an email to which they did not respond. When we mentioned that at the sit-in, another administrator underestimated the importance of having collected more than four hundred signatures on the petition, and he said that gathering online signatures was easy to do but does not necessarily mean much,” he added.

In the spring of 2017, the group’s only action happened during the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike, whereby students chose the Toll House as one of many locations where they held banners to show their solidarity with the cause.

Gina Barghouti, a Political Studies major at AUB and a previous participant in “Students Against Nestle” actions shared her experience in BDS activism with Outlook.

After transferring from Portland State University to AUB to complete her degree, Barghouti finds it “absolutely frustrating that students at AUB are met with so many obstacles that prevent Divestment from happening, [especially while] similar campaigns have worked in college campuses around the US, where Zionist groups flourish; even the American Studies Association supported BDS.”

Barghouti’s remarks align with those of many. Various student activists expressed that it was illogical to blame the weakness of divestment action in AUB on the fact that it is an American university, when divestment calls are an essential part of student voices on American campuses in the US.  

“Back in the US, decisions were passed by student councils before being sent to the administration to act on them,” Barghouti said. “There was a very open discussion about why divestment is important. Our problem here is that we need to resort to protests and make other students uncomfortable for our voices to be heard.”

Barghouti, among other participants of the “Students Against Nestle” movement, finds that AUB does not provide a proper platform for the discussion of divestment.

“We need a setting where people can present their ideas and have others take note and create a list of pros and cons, evaluate, and then vote – only that would be a democratic system,” she said.

Graduate student in American Studies, Tala Makhoul, and a previous organizer of AUB Divest, spoke to Outlook on the reality of divestment on campus.

Early on in their endeavors, in Spring 2015, AUB Divest had protested at a talk on gender equity, given in West Hall, by representatives of Nestle. Students of this movement were the first to target the Toll House with a sit-in, in 2015, holding banners and giving out flyers with a list of companies involved in Israeli Occupation.

Makhoul had been part of AUB Divest until that movement died out in the beginning of Fall 2016, which is when Students Against Nestle took over.  

“There is no clear mechanism for presenting a motion by students, for students. The USFC is not independent from administrative oversight, and USFC representatives aren’t really willing to work on this [type of issue],” she said.

While Makhoul stated that she acknowledged the inclusion of the  Nestle Toll House issue by the Secular Club on their elections platform, she finds that divestment as a whole is often missing from such goals.  

The Dean of Student Affairs plays an important role in regard to these students’ concerns, whether by observing action from a distance, or by briefly interacting with students during their events.

“We are not aware of such a movement on any significant scale. Of course individuals can and do take personal initiatives in accordance with their conscience or beliefs, and this happens both for religious as well as political reasons. This is a personal right that AUB respects as it respects and adheres to the parameters and limits of Lebanese laws which is an important assurance to the wider community at large,” said Dr. Nizameddine in an email to Outlook.

The issue extends beyond AUB, however. Many believe it is sufficient enough that Lebanon has state-sanctioned boycotts against Israel. Yet there are things that are not necessarily Israeli, but that still promote the apartheid and profit from it.  

“There is no hope for divestment in AUB, as long as students are under the illusion that there’s no way Lebanon would normalize relations with Israel,” said Makhoul.

As per the definition of BDS on the global movement’s official website, “boycott”, “divestment”, and “sanctions”, refer to different things. The first functions on the level of the individual, the second on the level of the institution, and the third on the level of the state.  

When it comes to AUB, these student movements for BDS have been coming in and out of existence. Clubs like the Palestinian Cultural Club and the Red Oak Club have put in constant efforts to endorse these movements, and to raise awareness on campus through panel discussions and other events – usually held in March or April during International Israeli Apartheid Week.

As Barghouti puts it, “We are asked to be critical thinkers and to do research and aim for bettering ourselves and our communities. In fact, divestment is an act that would uphold many of the values that this university takes pride in”.

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