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News / Northwest

WWU issues apology to Arab students, agrees to some of war protesters’ demands

By Robert Mittendorf, , The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.) (TNS),
Published: June 3, 2024, 7:43am

May 31—Western Washington University issued a statement Friday morning and released a “memorandum of understanding” that describes how the campus administration is addressing the demands of students who established a tent camp to protest the war in Gaza and the university’s ties to Israel and U.S. defense manufacturers.

In exchange, members of the student group WWU Divest Apartheid Coalition removed about 70 tents from the lawn between Old Main and Viking Union, leaving behind only square patches of yellowed grass where 100 students and others staged a two-week sit-in.

Participants will not face discipline for their actions, according to the agreement.

Student activists celebrated the pact to end their two-week demonstration on Thursday, claiming victory during a news conference timed to coincide with a university-imposed deadline to remove their tents.

WWU President Sabah Randhawa posted the full agreement online Friday, along with a letter headlined “Encampment resolution and reflections.”

In his letter, Randhawa offered an apology to Palestinian, Arab and Arab American students for a November statement that said the term “intifada” calls for violence against Jews.

“In particular, my recent conversations with students from WWU’s Arab Student Association have helped me realize that I misunderstood the complexity of the term intifada and misrepresented our ASA students’ intended use of the term,” Randhawa said.

Intifada is an Arabic term that means “shaking off,” according to the Arab media network Al-Jazeera. Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League say that Jews hear the word “as a call for indiscriminate violence” because of the 2000-2005 series of attacks that killed about 1,000 Israelis and 3,200 Palestinians.

In addition to the apology, university officials negotiated a solution to the demands listed by student protesters.

In part, the agreement said:

  • WWU officials will meet with students to “develop a plan of action regarding university investments,” establish an advisory committee for socially responsible investments and a procedure for anyone to make divestment requests.
  • The university will be transparent about its interests in private industry, form a committee on socially responsible procurement and create a way to field requests for products carried in campus markets and dining halls. It doesn’t specifically mention Sabra hummus, an Israeli product that protesters want removed from campus.
  • WWU officials will review study-abroad programs such as the one with the University of Haifa.
  • Chief Diversity Officer Jacqueline Hughes will continue a campus-wide “dialogue around the interpretation and use of terms, including but not limited to anti-Arab racism, sexism, anti-Blackness, anti-trans sentiment, antisemitism, etc., and how various interpretations impact our community.”
  • University officials will work with the Foundation for WWU and alumni to “pursue the creation of a number of full-tuition scholarships for students who have been displaced from universities in Gaza.”

The WWU Divest Apartheid Coalition included members of the Arab Student Association and Jewish Voice for Peace, an “anti-Zionist” organization. Their name alludes to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Protesters demanded that WWU disclose and sever its ties to companies and institutions doing business with Israel, sought an emergency meeting of the WWU board of trustees, and urged the university to define antisemitism using language that equates Zionism with racism — a step that’s called antisemitic by several major Jewish institutions and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

About 100 members of the Divest Apartheid Coalition and others celebrated the agreement Thursday outside Old Main, which holds offices for the university administration.

“It is important to remember that this is a very bittersweet moment,” one of the speakers said. “While we are celebrating this win, it is also important to remember that we are not done yet. We have so much more work to do and we don’t intend on stopping here.”

Toward the end of the event, organizers asked for a moment of silence to honor the estimated 36,000 Gaza residents who have been killed in the fighting that began Oct. 7, 2023, when Hamas militants attacked Israel, killing about 1,200 Israelis and taking 250 hostages.

The Associated Press reported May 30 that Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza since then has killed more than 36,000 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Protesters pitched their tents in the early hours of Tuesday, May 14, which is Israel’s Independence Day and the second day of Israel Apartheid Week on campus.

Since that time, University Police recorded several instances of vandalism with slogans protesting the war in Gaza.

A Jewish student reported to police that they were spat upon and followed home on May 17, as they walked past a Gaza war protest. That incident that was being investigated as a possible hate crime.

University officials told The Bellingham Herald that none of the incidents has been linked to encampment participants.

Last week, Jewish faculty, students and others told The Herald that the administration wasn’t taking their safety seriously.

Several college and university campuses across the U.S. have seen similar protest encampments in recent weeks as the war in Gaza continues.

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