Everyone who graduates from Pomona College walks past a quotation etched in the stone gates on Sixth Street: “They only are loyal to this college who, departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind.” Even as a cynical nineteen-year-old, exhausted and walking back home from the library, I was moved by these words. But I also wondered what, exactly, the college meant by serving humanity.
In our classrooms, the Pomona education was as advertised: It taught us how to think rigorously, how to recognize patterns and connections, and how to investigate. It taught us about history, the long shadow of colonialism, politics and philosophy, violence and injustice. And it gave us the gift of clarity. It taught us how to consider the evidence — and how to come to a conclusion.
So when I saw hundreds of students calling on Pitzer College to suspend a study abroad program to Haifa that Palestinians were definitionally excluded from, I couldn’t just look away. I couldn’t embrace Pomona’s diversity while regarding my conversations with Palestinian students skeptically, doubting their stories of discrimination and exile. After spending over a year researching my senior thesis in international relations, I couldn’t pretend that my historical sources showed anything other than Israel committing apartheid and ethnic cleansing.
What was I supposed to get out of this education? Were we not, as Pomona students, supposed to be critical thinkers, seeking justice in an imperfect world? When it became clear that the College refused to divest from weapons of war, from the Israeli occupation of Palestine and from world-destroying fossil fuels, were we not supposed to see in our beloved institution the same legacies of colonialism and imperialism that we had been discussing in our morning seminar?
For years, student activists posed these questions to the College, wondering, for instance, how it could defend investments in companies that violate international law. And for years, Pomona failed to respond to these appeals with anything but dismissal and stonewalling.
We can all agree, of course, that a university should always be a place of refuge, of academic freedom, of all kinds of diversity. But we cannot, must not, cynically deploy these values to prevent us from ever having to reach a conclusion or take a position at all. There is the sanctity of all life, and the unacceptability of all racism and discrimination — and there is a genocide, carried out by Israel against Palestinians, right now.
In writing this piece, I struggled with whether I should restate, once again, the rest of the facts. That the state of Israel was founded by violently displacing over 750,000 Palestinians, that it has maintained an illegal military occupation of Palestine for decades, that it has cut Gaza off from the rest of the world for more than 16 years, that the UN declared Gaza uninhabitable in 2020, that the Israeli military and parastate settlers regularly kill Palestinians with impunity. The list goes on.
But at this point, I’m not sure who is left to be convinced. Every day, there is overwhelming evidence that Israel is bombing Palestinians indiscriminately, murdering astronomical numbers of children. It is doing this with U.S. money, U.S. weapons, and with the consent of the U.S. government. It is not an overstatement to say that this genocide is directly enabled by the failure of our institutions to take a clear stance against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.
Many members of the Claremont community recognize this complicity and are raising their voices. Four recent statements from Pitzer, Pomona and Scripps College alumni and Pomona faculty call for an immediate ceasefire, and for an end to the Claremont Colleges’ complicity in Israeli genocide, apartheid and occupation through the divestment of our endowment, in line with the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.
Beyond the chorus of statements, bold student activism against Israel’s genocide of Palestinians is only growing in power and stamina. In response, the Pomona administration is doing the same thing that it’s done for years in response to student calls for divestment: nothing but uphold the status quo.
A statement released by President Starr on Wednesday makes this particularly clear. Referring to the murder of over 10,000 Palestinians as “the ongoing conflict,” her statement sidesteps the central issue of Israel’s relentless decimation of Palestine. It contains no mention of Gaza, instead gesturing obliquely to “the war zone.” Rather than call for a ceasefire, it “reiterates” that there are “varying perspectives” at play.
Pomona’s continued attempts to disguise its inaction with endless equivocation and appeals to vague liberal values are disappointing enough. But the school also chose to follow its calls for tolerance by informing protesting students that they may be asked to remove their masks so that the school can successfully identify them. In its declaration of intent to surveil its students opposing a genocide, Pomona echoes police forces surveilling protestors across the country. As a Pomona alumna, I’m particularly disturbed.
I know, from students before me, that Pomona also attempted to do nothing in the face of student pressure to divest from apartheid South Africa. And because those students were resolute, and would not be dissuaded or coerced out of what they knew was right, Pomona eventually divested from that apartheid regime.
I know, from my time on campus, that the Pitzer administration could not ignore the overwhelming student support for the Suspend Haifa campaign. And I know that if Pomona continues to refuse to call for a ceasefire, if it continues to fail to divest from Israeli apartheid, this will stand as an indelible stain on the history of the school.
This is a decisive moment. The stakes have never been higher, and the moral bankruptcy of the Israeli government has never been clearer. I can only hope that we all find in ourselves just an ounce of the courage and clarity that Palestinians have demonstrated for so many years.
Sarah Burch PO ’22 was an international relations major and co-chair of Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine during her time at Pomona.