Students at George Mason University in Virginia plan to walk out of their graduation ceremony on Thursday in protest of Israeli businesswoman-philanthropist Shari Arison, who is due to deliver a speech and receive an honorary degree from the university.
Once Arison finishes her talk, the students will return to the hall and participate in the ceremony.
The university’s Students Against Israeli Apartheid group, which includes both students and lecturers, decided to go ahead with the protest after coordinating with the school’s administration. In recent weeks, the group has been waging a campaign on campus against the university’s ties with the Israeli-American billionaire. George Mason’s administration told Haaretz it has notified Arison of the planned protest.
The ceremony will be held for 1,500 of 4,000 students completing undergraduate and graduate degrees.
In 2012, Arison donated funds to the public university for creating the Shari Arison Endowed Professorship of Doing Good Values. The purpose of the endowment is to “[explore] a values-based philosophy in business and other leadership spheres.”
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.”
Craig Willse, an assistant professor in Cultural Studies at GMU, and Tareq Radi, a graduate student completing his Master’s degree in finance, are the co-signees of the SAIA letter. In a telephone interview they told Haaretz that the campaign they were conducting had generated an ongoing debate about issues connected directly with Israeli policies and also raised the general question of the laundering of corporate funds that are based, for example, on damage to the environment and are laundered through donations to universities. They said that their organization was created in early 2013 and that it has a nucleus of about 20 activists.
Their previous campaign targeted the sale of Sabra hummus, produced by the Strauss Group. Although campus cafeterias have not stopped selling this brand, they now offer an alternative one.
The New Century College, which has received an endowment for a Professorship of Doing Good Values (in cooperation with GMU’s School of Management), has already held an initial discussion of SAIA’s claims. Willse and Radi stated that they were very happy with the arrangement with the university’s administration, under which there will be a pre-coordinated walkout before the speech. Even if the administration does not agree with them, the coordination with it over the walkout and the recognition of their position constitute an important achievement, they said.
GMU, located not far from Washington, D.C., has a student population of 33,000. Willse and Raid noted that GMU has a relatively large proportion of Muslim Americans, due to the university’s geographical proximity to one of the largest Arab American communities in the U.S. They argue that the campus is generally apolitical but that their activities are changing that situation.
According to Willse, in light of the reduction in government support for public universities in the U.S., private donations are expected to increase and thus the principle of identifying the source of all private donations assumes increased importance.
In a written response to Haaretz, GMU Spokesperson Michele McDonald stated that of a total budget of $888 million for the 2013 fiscal year, $24.9 million, or 2.8 percent, came from private sources, and that the ratio of private funds to state funds varies from year to year. For example, the general fund (money from the Commonweath of Virginia) increased 11.2 percent while private funds increased 5.5 percent from the 2011-12 budget to the 2012-2013 budget. McDonald wrote that the endowment amount from Arison could not be disclosed.
When asked whether the facts publicized by the SAIA members in their letter were known to GMU before contact was made with Arison, McDonald replied: “Innovative, diverse, entrepreneurial, accessible … these words not only embody George Mason University’s core values and mission, they’ve also been used by global observers to describe the philanthropist and business leader who will speak at Mason’s winter graduation ceremony this week. Arison is committed to what she calls a ‘doing good values model,’ which focuses on people and the planet, not just profits.”
Haaretz asked the GMU spokesperson whether the granting of a platform to Arison, despite the criticism, signaled that the university did not find any ethical problem with her economic activities. “Mason stands by its commitment to freedom and learning, which means welcoming all points of view,” McDonald replied. “Having Ms. Arison speak at Mason provides another viewpoint and another voice, which can inspire thoughtful dialogue and greater understanding. Mason has a long history of friendship with not only the Jewish community but also with the Muslim, Arab and Palestinian communities.”
The Washington Jewish Week defines SAIA as “a small but vocal anti-Israel group on [GMU’s] campus.” The newspaper also reported that the head of Hillel at GMU, Ross Diamond, discounted the protest, calling Arison “a role model for our students. We have a lot to learn from her.”