Students at George Mason University organize graduation walkout on Apartheid profiteer Shari Arison

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Students Against Israel Apartheid campaign, Virginia, December 2013.(Photo: Haaretz)

Tomorrow, December 19th, George Mason University is presenting renown billionaire Apartheid profiteer Shari Arison, member of the Arison settlement-building family and Israel’s richest woman, an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at the university’s winter graduation ceremony. Arison will also be a speaker at the event.

George Mason University Students Against Israeli Apartheid (GMU SAIA), and Craig Willse, Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies, co-authored an open letter (below) stating GMU’s name is being used to “whitewash the activities of the Arison Group” diminishing “the academic autonomy and reputation of George Mason” and undermining the possibility “for teaching, learning, and practicing social justice on our campus.”

Haaretz:

Students Against Israeli Apartheid wrote a letter accusing the Arison Group of involvement “in the illegal occupation and colonization of Palestine … and turns the repression, discrimination and displacement of the Palestinian people into profit.” The letter charges the company’s various holdings with offering mortgages in the settlements, mining for minerals in an occupied portion of the Dead Sea, financing the Jerusalem’s light rail, construction at checkpoints and the separation barrier, and involvement in the Bedouin resettlement plan by financing a new military compound in the Negev. The letter also says Israeli Arabs are discriminated against at branches of Arison’s Bank Hapoalim.

In their opinion, the connection with Arison runs counter to GMU’s declared values and hurts its reputation. “Honoring Arison,” they state in an open letter, “makes Mason appear to be a PR machine for robber baron billionaires, rather than an autonomous public research university.”

A public outcry from graduating students, faculty and their guests “who did not wish to have their ceremony marred by Arison’s presence” ensued. Then, GMU SAIA successfully coordinated a walkout with GMU’s administration. According to a press release issued by GMU SAIA :

University administrators contacted Students Against Israeli Apartheid, responding to this public outcry. After a week-long period of discussion, the university met SAIA’s demand for accommodations for graduating students who did not wish to have their ceremony marred by Arison’s presence, and released the following statement:  “Graduates seated on the arena floor will be able to leave through an exit at the rear of the hall. These individuals will be provided an option of waiting in a reserved room. (…) An event staff member will inform those waiting when the commencement speaker’s remarks have concluded.  Graduates and guests can then re-enter the arena.” This is a historical opportunity for graduating students to demonstrate their commitment to human rights and stand in solidarity with the Palestinian students that have been personally affected by the on-going occupation of Palestine by Apartheid Israel. As the first campus that has resisted the Arison Group’s influence, Mason can set a strong precedent for rejecting the Arison Group’s whitewashing of Israeli Apartheid.

At our request, letter co-author Palestinian-American Tareq Radi, GMU Class of 2013 completing his undergrad degree in finance, offered a personal statement about the impact of GMU’s decision to honor Arison at his graduation ceremony, and the coordinated walkout tomorrow:

For as long as I can remember, my mother has been looking forward to attending my graduation. Growing up, she rarely mentioned any of the other conventional “landmarks” in a child’s life.

For the past year, every time I called my grandmother she made it a point to remind me of how excited she was for my graduation.

As if it weren’t enough that Shari’s wealth was built on the dispossession of my family -my people- she has to rob of us this joyous occasion as well?

The university’s capitulation to the demands of the community have resulted in a historical moment for BDS work, I could not have imagined a better way to end my undergraduate career.

Radi addressing attendees (Video):

Stand up and walk out on the right side of history with your fellow graduates..the university will be accommodating students, faculty and guests who are offended by the honoring of the Apartheid profiteer Shari Arison the opportunity to exit at the rear of the hall.

This is indeed an historical opportunity for graduating students, their families, and anyone/everyone in attendance to stand in solidarity with Palestinian students, and Palestinians everywhere, personally affected by the on-going, brutal and oppressive Apartheid occupation of Palestine, directly facilitated by the Shari Arison.

The following is GMU SAIA’s Open Letter: Doing Good: Social Justice or Corporate Whitewashing?

To the members of the George Mason community:

We are writing as a faculty member and student to express our concern with the relationship that George Mason University is building with Shari Arison. Arison recently donated funds for a “Doing Good Values” professorship within New Century College, and is being recognized at December commencement with an honorary degree and the opportunity to address the audience. President Cabrera has stated that “Arison’s example of practicing moral responsibility in business is one that we want to share with our students as they begin the next phase of their lives.” However, even a brief look at the operations of her company, the Arison Group, challenges the plausibility of this claim. We are concerned that our university’s name is being used to whitewash the activities of the Arison Group. This not only diminishes the academic autonomy and reputation of George Mason, but actually undermines possibilities for teaching, learning, and practicing social justice on our campus.

Arison claims to be a socially responsible investor committed to values-based businesses and morally responsible ventures. However, the Arison Investments portfolio consists of four major companies, three of which are directly involved in the illegal occupation and colonization of Palestine: Bank Hapoalim, Shikun & Binui, and Salt of the Earth. The largest bank in Israel, Bank Hapoalim (which is controlled by Arison Holdings) is a key player in the expansion of settlements into the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). These settlements are illegal according to both United Nations Resolutions and the Laws of War and Occupation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In addition to financing the construction of illegal settlements, Hapoalim operates branches in some of the most violent settlements in the OPT and directly profits by being the primary mortgage provider for settlement homebuyers. Additionally, by financing the Jerusalem Light Rail project, which aims to connect the illegal settlement blocs to Jerusalem, the bank is responsible for what has been described as the bantustanization of the OPT, permanently dividing neighborhoods and families and further limiting already restricted movement. The bank has recently embarked on a new project as part of Israel’s Prawer Plan, financing a military city in the Negev. This plan is responsible for the present-day displacement of up to 70,000 Bedouins and if fully implemented would result in the demolition of as many as 35 currently thriving Bedouin villages. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has condemned the Prawer Plan as legalizing racist, discriminatory practices. Finally, Arison claims that Bank Hapoalim operates within her Doing Good model, by helping customers attain “Financial Freedom.” However, a recent investigation exposed the bank for discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel, denying Palestinian requests to transfer their accounts to other banks, while allowing Jewish customers to do so. Shikun & Binui, the real estate and infrastructure arm of the Arison Group, provides materials for the construction of checkpoints. It has also built a portion of the Apartheid Wall (declared illegal by the United Nations International Court of Justice), is constructing the cross-Israel Jewish-only highway, and operates an illegal factory for construction materials in the OPT. Finally, Salt of the Earth illegally extracts minerals from the occupied portion of the Dead Sea.

Arison boasts that the companies in its portfolio are ethical investments that constitute the pillars of the Israeli economy. It uses this empty rhetoric to mask that its “success” is based in extractive, repressive actions that violate international law. The Arison Group’s daily operations directly extend and entrench the illegal occupation and colonization of Palestine. It turns the repression, discrimination, and displacement of the Palestinian people into profit.

Given the central role the Arison Group plays in Israel’s illegal occupation and apartheid state, we are deeply concerned that Mason is honoring Arison at commencement. Through commencement ceremonies, universities present their public face to the wider academic community. We worry that Mason is being used to provide positive publicity for the Arison Group’s attempts to brand itself as moral and just, covering over the immoral and brutal activities that constitute its work. Publicly honoring Arison undermines the credibility of our university, particularly because Mason claims to value responsibility, community, ethics, and justice. Honoring Arison makes Mason appear to be a PR machine for robber baron billionaires, rather than an autonomous public research university. Graduation day celebrates the beginning of our students’ futures and the culmination of their families’ and friends’ support. Commencement speakers should embody the core values of an institution, and speak to the experiences and aspirations of graduating students, inclusive of all members of our diverse community. The selection of Arison as commencement speaker reduces the experience of graduation to a mockery for Palestinian students and their families, making it clear that their graduation experience is not of the university’s concern. To have this event marred by the presence and words of an individual whose family has built its wealth through the direct dispossession and oppression of Palestinians is an insult to those members of our community and to anyone who values justice.

It appears that Arison is being honored at commencement because of her donation of funds for a named professorship. As Mason increasingly relies on funding from external sources, we must be extremely cautious that those funds do not influence curriculum and undermine the autonomy of Mason’s educational, cultural, and social life. University administration has said that the professor of the endowed chair will be dedicated to research and education as exemplified by Shari Arison’s “vision.” It is deeply troubling that a war profiteer can not only redefine the standards for moral business practices, but also gain a direct line to communicate them to future business leaders. We are furthermore worried about the impact of Arison’s “values” on our campus community beyond the classroom. Arison is a major donor to NGO Monitor. Despite its innocuous name, NGO Monitor works closely with right-wing partners to suppress criticism of Israeli policy, defaming and sabotaging human rights organizations, independent publications, and other NGOs. It is difficult to reconcile Arison’s direct role in suppressing free speech and political organizing with Mason’s vision for “a more just, free, and prosperous world.” We worry that the cultural and ideological diversity that characterize our campus, of which we are deservedly proud, are under threat. We strongly feel that whatever financial resources Arison brings to Mason are not worth the damage done to our reputation, our autonomy, and our institutional integrity.

Mason has recently articulated the values of its mission: “our students come first; diversity is our strength; we honor freedom of thought and expression; we act with integrity.” In this partnership with Arison, our own core values are inverted—to undermine diversity, to squelch freedom of thought and expression, to tarnish our integrity, and to diminish the humanity of our students—for the price of a corporate whitewashing campaign. We are sure you are as unsettled by this information as we were when we first uncovered it. Please join us in rejecting this exploitation of the university as a platform for the Arison Group to expand its corporate and political influence to the detriment of our own institution. We encourage you to forward this letter to your peers and colleagues and welcome any questions you have. Thank you for taking the time to hear our concerns.

Craig Willse
Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies
[email protected]

Tareq Radi
GMU Class of 2013
[email protected]

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About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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