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News / Northwest

University of Washington president calls for cease-fire, criticizes protest encampment

The Columbian
Published: May 15, 2024, 7:08pm

SEATTLE — University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce called for a cease-fire in the war in Gaza in a public statement Wednesday while also criticizing the encampment protest at the school, saying the language used by some has been “vile and antisemitic.”

Tensions have risen recently between protesters at the encampment, which was set up about two weeks ago, and other university affiliates and outside demonstrators, including attendees of a right-wing activist’s talk and pro-Israel demonstrators led by a Christian church organization. Protesters have clashed, sometimes physically, with counterprotesters.

Cauce wrote the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is “heartbreaking” and reiterated, as she initially wrote Friday night, that the university’s response to calls for change won’t be based on an encampment and urged the members to dismantle.

While Cauce has been open about her reluctance to sweep the encampment as other university presidents have done, her statement Wednesday marked her strongest condemnation yet of the encampment.

She did not indicate whether she is seriously considering bringing police in to forcibly remove encampment protesters and tents. On Monday, the student-run newspaper The Daily reported Cauce said she does “not want (sweeps) on this campus … but I can’t take anything off the table.”

Several main campus buildings were vandalized with graffiti overnight into Wednesday, which an administrator referred to as a “major escalation” in an internal email obtained by The Daily.

Cauce said in her statement the graffiti, some of which she said was “clearly both antisemitic and violent,” created an unwelcome environment for Jewish people on campus. According to Cauce, representatives said “the new graffiti is an intentional escalation to compel the University to agree to their demands.”

A UW spokesperson would not clarify Wednesday which messages Cauce was referring to as antisemitic.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle said in a statement Wednesday it is “outraged” by what is happening at UW. The statement called on UW to clear the encampment, “ensure antisemitism is added to the robust DEI offerings at UW” and not stop associating with Boeing or Israel.

Sen. John Braun, the Republican minority leader of the Washington state Senate, also on Wednesday called on UW to end the encampment “immediately” due to its “illegal and destructive actions.”

In her statement, Cauce said the protesters at the encampment represent a “small fraction” of the student population and includes nonstudents. More than 150 tents have been erected on the Quad since the demonstration began. The encampment, called the UW Liberated Zone or Popular University for Gaza, has three core demands: that the university cut ties with Boeing, end repression of pro-Palestinian students and faculty, and divest materially from Israel.

The United Front for Palestinian Liberation at UW, one of the groups that organized the encampment, posted Wednesday afternoon on Instagram that Cauce’s refusal to cut ties with Boeing amounts to a “relationship with a company that commits genocide.” Protesters have repeatedly pointed to Boeing’s longstanding relationship with Israel and arms sales to the Israeli government.

“While Cauce lies, Palestinians die,” the group posted.

The United Front also wrote in a statement that Cauce and another administrator canceled plans to meet with the encampment protesters due to the vandalism.

“Apparently they would rather cancel on our meeting to address people feeling ‘unsafe’ than address the actual harms and genocide in Palestine facilitated by our University,” the statement said. “They would rather protect buildings than lives, but we remain steadfastly committed to achieving our demands and seeing a liberated Palestine.”

Protesters at the encampment held a rally Wednesday to mark Nakba Day, which commemorates the mass displacement of Palestinian people after Israel’s establishment. Nakba is Arabic for “catastrophe,” and refers to when an estimated 700,000 people were displaced from what is now Israel.

Encampment leaders and administration members have met several times as the encampment remains up, and Cauce said their conversations have been “cordial” and the two sides have “engaged sincerely and openly.”

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UW has reiterated it does not plan to cut all ties with Boeing. Nor does UW plan to academically boycott Israel, Cauce wrote, saying doing so would run counter to academic freedom.

The protesters’ demands have increased, according to Cauce, now including: creating a new department to implement an “anti-Zionist” litmus test for faculty hiring; granting a student group oversight of awarding new, religion-based scholarships; and blanket amnesty for all violations of the law and student code, including not solely camping, Cauce said in her statement. “Many of these demands, especially the most recent, are contrary to academic freedom and/or to state or federal law.”

“There are many ways for voices to be heard that don’t require tents, violent rhetoric and vandalism,” Cauce wrote.