Over 400 7C students protest, picket urging Pomona divestment from Israel

Students gathered for “Shut Pomona Down” during the morning and early afternoon on Thursday. (Annabelle Ink • The Student Life)

On Thursday morning at 7 a.m., Claremont College students began gathering outside Pomona College’s Smith Campus Center for “Shut Pom Down for Palestine,” part of a “global call” to action for divestment organized by Palestinian Youth Movement, National Students for Justice in Palestine and International People’s Assembly. This protest comes just over two weeks after hundreds of 7C students walked out of classes to demand Pomona divest from Israeli companies.

The protest was part of a series of demonstrations, events and talks hosted at the 5Cs this week regarding violence and deaths in Israel and Palestine. The week leading up to the protest saw a flurry of emails from Pomona administrators over freedom of speech, student safety and protestors’ etiquette and rights.

From 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., student protesters in masks wearing all black sat in front of all visible entrances to Alexander Hall to prevent Pomona faculty and administrators from entering the building. Protest chants included “Israel bombs, Pomona pays. How many kids did you kill today?,” “Pomona College you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” and “How many Gazans have to die before you hear their freedom cry?”

Close to 9 a.m., Campus Safety Officers escorted faculty and administration into Alexander Hall through a basement entrance at the front of the building.

Protest organizers pivoted, regrouping students outside the SCC. Around 9:15 a.m. protesters entered Alexander Hall and circled the first floor repeating “What the fuck do we want? Divestment / When the fuck do we want it? Now!” in a call-and-response chant.

Two hours later, around 11 a.m., students sat in a circle on Marston Quad for a teach-in with four students in the center leading a presentation. Pamphlets with QR codes to “The ABCs of BDS” slides were passed through the crowd.

The teach-in began with some definitions on Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) terminology and background on the movement.

Students protest around the perimeter of Pomona’s Alexander Hall (Annabelle Ink • The Student Life).

Organizers said Israel receives more money in aid from the United States than all other countries combined and argued that because of this, students in the United States have the responsibility to push their colleges to divest.

Nicholas Black PO ’24, co-president of Divest 5C, spoke at the teach-in to provide students with language to use with the administration when talking about divestment. Black told TSL that he thinks the administration’s response to calls for disclosure and divestment is overly concerned with language. Specifically, he highlighted responses that have pointed out tuition and fees are completely separate from the endowment.

“It doesn’t matter if the money is coming from donors or from students,” Black said. “We’re still funding Israeli apartheid.”

Other speakers, who didn’t identify themselves, explained that Pomona is being targeted specifically for its large endowment. Multiple students and resources from the protest measured the endowment value at $3.8 billion, but a TSL investigation into 5C endowments found that number to be $2.7 billion currently.

“Pomona has the largest endowment,” one speaker said to the crowd. “Because it is the oldest college in the consortium we recognize that it has influence and that once it discloses and divests, the other 5Cs will do the same.” 

Student speakers also shared information about the legal complaint Divest 5Cs filed with California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Oct. 30. The teach-in ended with organizers asking attendees to sign a “Cross-Coalitional Solidarity with Palestine” petition.

Around a dozen faculty watched the teach-in from the shade of one of the trees.

A Scripps College professor, who requested anonymity due to concerns over job security, attended the teach-in because their students said that the best way to support them was to be physically present at the various actions on campus.

“I’m deeply energized, and I’m grateful that our students are organizing so powerfully and that they’ve really taken the time to create space for community and public education,” the professor said. “As divisive as this issue is, it is also one way for many of us to connect.”

7C students gather for a teach-in on Pomona’s Marston Quad (Reia Li • The Student Life).

By the time the teach-in ended on Marston Quad at 12 p.m., over 400 students had gathered to demand Pomona and the other Claremont Colleges “immediately divest from U.S. weapons manufacturers and Israeli and Israeli-affiliated companies.”

“I feel really happy to see my peers come out to support the Palestinian cause,” a student demonstrator, who requested anonymity for safety concerns, said.

Another student said Pomona College’s refusal to divest from companies funding Israel is antithetical to their position as a socially progressive institution.

“My education at Pomona College has been about calling out settler colonialism, understanding colonization and becoming a conscious and ethical citizen of the world and calling out these internalized interlocking systems of power,” said the student, who requested anonymity due to safety concerns. “It would be incredibly disingenuous and antithetical to everything I’ve tried to learn here if I don’t actually manifest that into action.”

Despite escalating student protests, Pomona said they have no plans to pursue this kind of divestment. On Oct. 27, protestors blocked Starr’s welcome address to parents during Parent Weekend. Two weeks ago, hundreds of students walked out of class. A delegation to Jeff Roth on Nov. 3 culminated in students blocking an intersection between 6th Street and the Pomona gates. 

Mark Kendall, Pomona’s chief communication officer, told TSL that “Pomona’s investment policies do not single out any nation, nationality or region for investment exclusion. There are no plans to pursue any exclusion of this kind.”

During the last two hours of the protest, which ended at 3 p.m., students ate a catered lunch and made phone calls to congressional representatives at the Pomona College Organic Farm.

In the days leading up to the protest, a series of emails from administrators and student groups went out to the Pomona and 5C community addressing the coming events.

On Nov. 8, President Gabrielle Starr sent an email to Pomona’s community outlining the college’s approach to student activism. In the email, Starr reaffirmed that Pomona upholds free speech and academic freedom.

“In the weeks since the Oct. 7 attacks, we’ve received complaints regarding slogans, chants and statements that were assessed, under our established process, to fall within the realm of protected speech,” Starr wrote.

In a Nov. 9 email to TSL after the protest, Kendall said that “an atmosphere of free speech and the right to protest also requires following reasonable community policies such as not blocking entrances/exits to buildings.”

Avis Hinkson, Pomona’s dean of students, sent an email on Nov. 8 “in light of the activism planned on campus” telling students to contact their class deans if they wanted a space to “study, reflect and unwind.”

Starr’s email also informed students that they may be asked to remove masks for identification purposes because “wearing masks that prevent recognition of individuals poses a challenge to the ability to maintain campus codes of conduct.”

Some students and faculty expressed concern that the language in Starr’s email echoed an open letter that StandWithUS, an international nonprofit that “supports Israel and fights antisemitism,” published on Nov. 7 as part of a campaign to remind universities of “their legal duties to Jewish and Israeli students.”

In the Nov. 7 open letter to Starr, leaders of the organization suggested Starr prohibit masks and inform faculty that “attending, endorsing and encouraging planned walkouts … likely violates school policies on use of class instruction time.”

In response to TSL’s inquiry about whether Starr was influenced by StandWithUs’s letter, Kendall, Pomona’s spokesperson, said that Starr “was not aware of such outside concerns.”

“The mention of masks [in Starr’s email] was in response to significant concerns related to our own campus — not in response to any outside organization,” Kendall told TSL via email.

In response to Starr’s email, a student expressed concern for other students, particularly undocumented and international students “whose presence at this college hinges upon them abiding by school rules.”

“The fact that we’re eliciting such a strong response within them means that the actions that we’re taking are actually hitting them where it hurts,” the anonymous student said. “But also it kind of terrifies me that they’re willing to sacrifice their students to such an extent.”

On Nov. 8, Jeff Roth, Pomona’s vice president, and Melanie Wu, dean of the college, sent an email to faculty and staff informing them that students would be protesting. An anonymous professor provided TSL with this email.

“As always, we continue with normal campus activities as planned, with appropriate modifications,” the email reads. “Please be thoughtful about how you proceed with your classes and your work.”

Some Jewish student groups expressed concern over Jewish students’ safety during the protest. On Nov. 8, Hillel at the Claremont Colleges sent an email to their community members with the subject line “URGENT: Safety Information for Tomorrow (11/9).” In the statement, Hillel urged members to avoid protests if they felt unsafe and document antisemitism when possible. 

“We are facing a context of deep tension and even hostility and emotions are running high,” the statement said. “It is so important in times like this to be aware and keep yourself safe.”

Students displayed signs advocating for divestment and participated in protest chants (Annabelle Ink • The Student Life).

Student group Haverim sent a statement with recommendations to members on Nov. 8 in anticipation of Thursday’s protest, Emilio N. Bankier PO ’27 told TSL. The recommendations included filming protesters, limiting interaction with protesters and attending classes if students felt safe to do so.

“Show those who seek to intimidate you that you are stronger than them by continuing your day as you would normally,” the statement read.

Bankier, who is Haverim’s director of public relations, feels there needs to be tangible acknowledgement from administrators, students and faculty that antisemitism is unacceptable at the Claremont Colleges. He expressed concern around signage included in a memorial erected by Claremont students at an Oct. 20 vigil arranged at Pomona’s Smith Student Center which expressed mourning for “insurgents who have died for the liberation of Palestine.” 

“There is a difference between mourning the deaths of civilians and mourning the deaths of terrorists,” Bankier told TSL via email. “To us, mourning the terrorists who perpetrated the atrocities of Oct. 7 is no different than mourning the Nazis. It needs to be made clear that such rhetoric has no place in Claremont, as it stands against the values of the colleges as well as basic humanity.”

A core tenet of Haverim, Bankier noted, is that it’s a space for community members to discuss Israel, which “includes criticism.” He also said that he holds “critical views” of Israel, and doesn’t believe any concrete change will occur until people with opposing views are willing to converse.

“I am opposed to settlements in the West Bank, for example, and I think that Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies over the last decades have been a disaster for Israelis and especially for Palestinians, who I think absolutely have a right to statehood and sovereignty.”

Prior to the Nov. 9 protest, the 5Cs hosted several events on Palestine and Israel, displaying a variety of perspectives from academics, activists and students.

On Nov. 5, over 50 people lined the tiers of the Freeburg Forum room at CMC to hear Dov Waxman, professor of political science at UCLA, speak about the historical context of the Oct. 7 attack and speculate on Hamas’ motives. The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Studies Sequence and the Salvatori Center at CMC.

Waxman began with the events of Oct. 7, when Palestinian militant group Hamas killed 1,400 people in Israel, saying that “this was first and foremost a terrorist attack.”

In regards to Israel’s response, he said that Israel should do everything it can to minimize civilian casualties; however, he doubted that the Israeli military is doing so. He noted that Israel had already killed many innocent Palestinian civilians in its quest to destroy Hamas. As of Nov. 6, over 10,000 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli forces since Oct. 7.

Despite this high death count, Waxman said that Israel is not deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians, arguing that this is a consequence of Hamas purposely storing its weapons in homes, schools and other civilian spaces.

“Hamas presented Israel with the grim choice: If you want to strike us, you’re gonna have to kill so many civilians,” Waxman said. “If you’re an Israeli military, you have to confront the fact that Hamas is going to exploit civilians [but] that doesn’t absolve Israel for civilian casualties.” 

One student who attended the talk told TSL they were not convinced by this part of Waxman’s argument.

“Hamas totally does put their headquarters in densely civilian populated areas, but also the entirety of Gaza is a densely civilian populated area,” the student, who requested to be anonymous for safety concerns, said.

The student said that they felt like Waxman’s talk was one of the first spaces on campus that allowed for multiple perspectives on the situation.

“When I’m in a non-Jewish space, I feel really defensive of … the fact that in this day and age, Israel does exist, and it’s not realistic to wipe out the entire population of Israel,” the student said. “Whereas when I’m in a Jewish space, I feel really comfortable criticizing the Israeli government and all the fucking intense crimes against humanity that they commit against Palestinian people. I felt like he had both of those things in his talk.”

The next day, Monday, Nov. 6, CMC’s history department collaborated with the Middle East and North Africa studies department at Scripps to screen the 2023 documentary Israelism, a film about the Jewish American connection with the state of Israel. The screening, at CMC’s Pickford Auditorium, was nearly full.

The documentary features two characters who “join a movement of young American Jews battling the old guard to redefine Judaism’s relationship with Israel, revealing a deepening generational divide over modern Jewish identity,” according to the film’s website.

After the screening concluded, a Q&A section with co-director Erin Axelman commenced in which they spoke about their experience as a Jewish American who was socialized to unconditionally support the state of Israel. They answered questions on the attacks of Oct. 7, antisemitism and centering Palestinian voices.

“We feel now is a critical time to have nuanced conversations about the root causes of the conflict and suffering in the Holy Land … to facilitate complex conversations about the trauma both Palestinians and Israelis are facing,” Axelman said.

In response to the screening and other events at the 5Cs, both Palestinian and Jewish students have echoed hopes for continuing conversations on the issue. Claremont Jewish Voice for Peace representative Bella Jacobs PZ ’24 argued for the need of an anti-Zionist Jewish space on campus.

“[Jewish Voice for Peace] is a place where Jewish students can build community and find other like-minded, anti-Zionist students and also bring students who are questioning their Zionist values,” Jacobs said. “There’s a lot of evidence showing that antisemitism has been on the rise in the last decade … but I think it’s extremely dangerous to conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionist, pro-human rights and pro-Palestinian speech on college campuses.”

Maya Zhan and Annabelle Ink contributed reporting.

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