May 21, 2024

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From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Open letter to President Scholz: You are inviting violence against our protesting students

6 min read
As experts in international law and human rights, the International Court of Justice, and leading scholars of Holocaust and comparative genocide studies have attested, we are witnessing a genocide perpetrated by the state of Israel with both the support and the endorsement of the United States as well as our own institution.

University of Oregon Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine responded May 13 to the administration statement, “UO response to encampment demands” and “A message to the UO community” from UO President Karl Scholz.

Dear President Scholz,

We are writing in our capacity as UO faculty and staff with a duty of care for our students in response to the message you sent out to members of our campus community on May 10. We want to address particular points that you made that are inaccurate, direct unwarranted hostility towards the students in the encampment, and put them in danger. Generally, ever since October, your remarks miss the fact that Israel is currently committing genocide against the Palestinian people, as has been established by over 400 leading genocide and Holocaust scholars along with UN human rights experts. The International Court of Justice has raised the alarm calling on Israel to prevent the risk of genocide. And even before that, it is well established in international law that Israel has illegally occupied Palestinian territory. The consensus amongst human rights experts is that Israel has enacted a system of apartheid. UO Palestine Coalition demands must be read in this context, and should therefore be understood as a call to ensure UO is not complicit in occupation, apartheid and genocide. While you may be concerned with campus camping violations, we are concerned with UO’s human rights violations. Moreover, your remarks have escalated the matter raising the risk of racist attacks against the students in the encampment. Below, we share three points that we found particularly alarming, distorted, or flawed.

“In the distressing absence of progress on the ground, it is tempting to use the power of language to bolster a moral argument. However, it is unproductive to do so in defense of an organization that has enshrined in its founding principles the call for the obliteration of a people. At the same time, and as we see daily, nation-states can also act with extreme violence.”

Given the framing of this especially vague paragraph, there is a strong insinuation that the “organization” being referred to is Hamas. As educators who care for our students, it is important to us to highlight that this is a gross mischaracterization of the goals of the encampment. The students have been clear since they formed the encampment that they are supporting Palestinian self-determination, human rights, and the end to their institution’s complicity in the genocidal mass slaughter, mass displacement, and mass starvation of Palestinians in Gaza and settler violence in the West Bank. Not only is this statement incorrect, it also poses several risks to our students by inviting violence. Implying that the student encampment is defending Hamas is the type of anti-Arab and inflammatory rhetoric that contributes to the very violence at UCLA and elsewhere that you mentioned you feared in your statement. Your remarks also imply that some of the statements of the UO Palestine Coalition are antisemitic which is similarly factually inaccurate. Your framing and irresponsible conflation puts students in danger and is particularly harmful to Jewish and Palestinian faculty, staff, and students who are in support of the encampment. You risk escalating what has been a very peaceful protest so far.

“The application of a moral claim on any side does nothing to alleviate the suffering of many, and in fact fosters and propels mistrust and division. Institutions – but especially universities – have the responsibility of holding a mirror to history and maintaining a neutral position on geopolitical events.”

According to your recent interview with the Daily Emerald (May 11), you are well aware that UO has taken sides in previous and/or ongoing “geopolitical events,” most recently in the Russian war against Ukraine. While you have distanced yourself from your predecessor’s decision to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, your words and actions are continuing Michael Schill’s policy of non-neutrality: since you issued your first statement on Oct. 13, in which you used your power and platform to frame the attack against Israel as “genocidal,” you have never maintained a neutral position. Your framing has always been one-sided, expressing grief over Israeli hostages and victims of violence (a grief we share), while failing to express any serious concern for Palestinian life and suffering or the deeper context of colonial oppression that led to the attacks. Since then, you have consistently taken a pro-Israel position, overlooking or justifying Israel’s aggression and state violence, while simultaneously refusing to condemn the genocidal violence against Palestinian peoples.

We are not witnessing a “geopolitical event” nor is genocide an event that has two “sides.” As experts in international law and human rights, the International Court of Justice, and leading scholars of Holocaust and comparative genocide studies have attested, we are witnessing a genocide perpetrated by the state of Israel with both the support and the endorsement of the United States as well as our own institution. Silence during a genocide is not neutral; expressing support for the state committing a genocide is not neutral; investing in and profiting from corporations that support or profit from apartheid, illegal occupation, and genocide is not neutral; threatening or punishing students who are reminding us of our responsibilities to condemn and end our complicity in genocide is not neutral. Given your past policy of non-neutrality, we therefore demand as a corrective that you clearly condemn genocide (“the crime of crimes”), speak out in favor of an immediate and permanent ceasefire and resume negotiations with the student protesters in good faith.

“Unfortunately, data show almost no effect from efforts like BDS on either easing the suffering of non combatants or a swifter end to hostilities. In our case, using our investments as a political tool compromises our fiduciary responsibility, reduces our ability to wisely steward and grow the financial resources of the university, and limits our ability to seek the best investments, with the best managers, in service to the university’s long-term benefit – including its future students and faculty.”

Data and the historical record have shown that BDS is indeed very effective. The global divestment movement to combat South African apartheid, which began on college campuses, including at UO, and was also resisted by university administrators, including at UO, directly contributed to the end of apartheid. Relatedly, framing the university’s investment system as neutral or apolitical conceals the ways that actively investing in companies that support or profit from genocide is already political.

Investing in companies that provide services and technology to the military committing violence is not neutral. Investing money in companies, like Jasper Ridge, that invest billions of dollars in war is not neutral. Every dollar that sustains apartheid, occupation, and genocide is a political statement. We also fundamentally reject investing in war and violence as a way to “wisely steward” the university.

Lastly, we want to note that you view your role as president in relation to one outcome: “steward the institution in a way that leaves it stronger in the future than how I found it.” Helping the university end its complicity in gross human rights violations and genocidal violence is a clear way to make our institution stronger for future generations. We urge you to listen to your students who have generously offered their time, labor, and expertise to support you in stewarding the institution responsibly. In your statement, you wrote that you worry for the students and for the “disruption” to campus, but when you, our university president, cannot clearly and unequivocally condemn the genocide of the Palestinian people, call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, and engage in sincere and serious dialogue with students about their reasonable demands, we worry about your ability to lead our institution responsibly.

Finally, we invite you to directly meet with the students and to substantively engage with their demands. We as faculty and staff welcome any opportunity to dialogue with you.

University of Oregon Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine in solidarity with The Popular University for Gaza

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