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Student activism is working – and fear-mongering cannot hold us back

By Matti Haacke     4/10/24 2:41pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked to the best of our ability and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors.

S.RES 02, titled “Student Association Boycott and Divestment from Corporations Complicit in the Ongoing Genocide in Gaza,” was presented to the Student Association on March 25. This resolution proposes the creation of an Ethical Spending Advisory Board designed to ensure that Blanket Tax funds are not dedicated to corporations that are complicit in Israeli colonial violence and apartheid based on guidelines created by the BDS movement. S.RES 02 also calls on Rice University to divest its endowment from these corporations and to disentangle itself from the war economy more generally. 

S.RES 02 implements divestment as a powerful political tool to dismantle systems of racism, oppression and warfare. It joins the calls for divestment in the Israeli colonial war machine that are now echoing across the United States, following in the footsteps of student divestment movements that targeted South Africa and were key to its liberation. S.RES 02 would be a powerful first step in a long-term campaign towards divesting from Israeli apartheid and colonial violence more broadly at an institutional level.

Just two days after proposing the resolution, the two Senator co-sponsors and the Student Association president received an order from Richard Baker of the Office of Access, Equity and Equal Opportunity to halt voting on the resolution indefinitely due to a complaint from a single student. The complaint alleged that S.RES 02 proposes an antisemitic policy based on the false claim that the resolution could entail the defunding of Jewish student organizations in the future.

However, this is clearly an attempt to falsely discredit the resolution, which does not restrict, in any way, funding to any Blanket Tax or other student organizations. Rather, it calls for the ethical spending of Blanket Tax funds by existing student organizations. No organization under this resolution would lose funding. 

The fact that this single complaint blocked the democratic process of voting sets a dangerous precedent that blatantly disregards student freedoms, democratic practices and the will of the student body. We cannot establish a university standard for policing speech and political activism that immediately conflates any criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism. The same standards do not apply to the sanctioning of China, Russia, Iran or the divestment from South Africa. The critique of the actions of states represents legitimate and necessary political discourse.  

As a Jewish student, I can unequivocally say that the sentiments in this resolution do not, in any way, foster antisemitism. This resolution is not about dividing us — it is about coming together as one united student group to take concrete actions towards justice. 

On April 1, the day scheduled to vote on the resolution, Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman and the General Counsel Omar Syed met with every voting member of the Student Association. I’ve spoken to voting members who alleged they discussed the possibility of individual lawsuits being filed against Senate members. 

I believe these meetings were designed to instill fear of legal repercussions amongst the voting members. It is hard to imagine that these meetings were unconnected to the injunction on voting by Baker, which suggests a coordinated attempt by the Rice administration to suppress this resolution using lawfare on multiple fronts. To my knowledge, there has been no recorded incident of individual lawsuits at any other U.S. universities grappling with similar resolutions, such as University of California, Davis, Harvard Law School, and the University of Houston

The administration has also attempted to foster a culture of fear by asserting that by passing S.RES 02, Rice may open itself up to “legal uncertainties.” However, Rice is classified as a nonprofit and not subject to Texas’ current anti-BDS legislation which, as outlined by Texas Government Code Chapter 808 and 2271, specifically targets companies defined in TX Gov Code 808.001 as explicitly for-profit organizations. We cannot base our legislative decisions on fears that the law may adjust to add nonprofits or on hypothetical assertions that are unlikely to occur, nor would they be retroactively applicable.

It is a moral failure that Rice has chosen to block the popular student expression of anti-war politics by deploying its highest ranking administrators to harass individual students.

As we saw in the Thresher last week, this is not the first time Rice has engaged in targeted suppression of the Student Association and student activists. From sanctioning anti-war activists to failing to divest from South Africa and more recently targeting Student Association organizing efforts to include HCEDD as an equal decision maker in the Community Benefits Agreement in the development of the Ion, Rice has a history of suppressing student voices. We cannot let this continue and must demand that Rice protects our academic freedoms.

Rice administration’s suppressive actions reveal that student activism is working. The university is afraid of the passage of this resolution, as it not only forcefully demands concrete action but also exposes its complicity in genocide. I question the morality of administrators and institutional systems that are scared of cutting ties with companies that profit off of genocide. Rice University must listen to the calls of the students, stand up to genocide and divest.

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