President Rowe states that College will not boycott Israel, Organizers Collective releases statement in response

SJP walkout on March 1. RYAN GOODMAN / THE FLAT HAT

Friday, March 29, College President Katherine Rowe delivered a message responding to the Apartheid Divestment referendum, which College of William and Mary students voted to approve during the March 28 spring Student Assembly election. In the time following her message, Students for Justice in Palestine and the College Organizers Collective — consisting of the WM Dissenters, SJP, WM Apartheid Divest, Black Students Organization, Jewish Voice for Peace and College Socialists — released statements responding to Rowe’s rejection of the referendum’s suggestions to boycott the State of Israel. These student-led organizations received support for their responses from individual students as well.  

In her statement delivered less than thirteen hours after the Student Assembly Election Commission revealed the referendum results, Rowe ultimately announced that the College will not boycott Israel.

This year’s referendum refers to the ongoing discourse in the College community over Israel’s actions in Gaza. Since October 2023, the College campus has seen an increase in tensions between students, faculty and administration, as there have been student protests calling upon the College administration to condemn Israel. Moreover, students from SJP have faced sanctions from Community Values and Restorative Practices, as there has been an increase in discourse over the extent to which students can express their freedom of speech on campus. 

In the referendum, the 301 student petitioners submitted an explanation calling Israel an apartheid state. 

“This referendum calls for The College of William & Mary to submit an audit of their endowment to determine the extent to which it is implicated in companies that uphold The State of Israel’s system of apartheid and continued infliction of violence against Palestinians, and to immediately divest from such funds, as well as end institutional ties to such corporations,” the explanation states. 

The William and Mary Dissenters, Apartheid Divest, SJP, Jewish Voice for Peace, College Socialists and Amnesty International USA all showed their solidarity and gratitude on Instagram when 2,036 students voted in favor of the referendum.   

Rowe expressed her reasons for not complying with the referendum’s call to boycott Israel. 

“As William & Mary’s Vision statement reads, people come here ‘wanting to understand and change the world – and together we do.’ At a learning institution, we do this by holding open spaces for respectful disagreement: recognizing that we may not share the same experiences and perceptions, and committing to grow in understanding. Collective blame is antithetical to these goals. For those reasons, William & Mary will not pursue a boycott of Israel as proposed in the student referendum,” Rowe wrote. 

“For those reasons, William & Mary will not pursue a boycott of Israel as proposed in the student referendum.”

Saturday, March 30, SJP posted a statement on Instagram, expressing their disappointment and frustration with Rowe’s rejection. 

“If student safety and protection from antisemitic and Islamophobic sentiments were truly among the administration’s goals, they would take vocal and actionable steps to combat their spread on campus and provide adequate support to all vulnerable groups. They would provide strong, clear, and consistent messaging that does not blatantly favor ‘one side’ of an overseas conflict that has strong connections to our home here. They would not invalidate the Palestinian identity, or students who belong to it, by foregoing any mention of it in their very first statement on the matter,” SJP wrote.

SJP elaborated on their thoughts on Rowe’s statement.

“These statements do not entail the ‘respectful disagreement’ stemming from students differing ‘experiences and perceptions’ that President Rowe hopes to facilitate on this campus. Rather, they are deeply racist and explicitly disrespectful, derogatory, and dehumanizing of students of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim identities, and based in inherently anti-Arab and Islamophobic tropes,” the statement reads. 

In an email to The Flat Hat, the WM Dissenters also explained their frustration.

“We are disappointed to see President Rowe’s callous and undemocratic response to the student referendum. The College was offered the opportunity to be on the right side of history, but we cannot say we are surprised that they did not take it. President Rowe has attempted to treat anything related to Palestine as a fringe political discourse sowing discord among W&M students; the results of the referendum—showing overwhelming support for divestment and for university transparency—contradict this narrative,” the Dissenters wrote. 

“We are disappointed to see President Rowe’s callous and undemocratic response to the student referendum.”

In her message, Rowe cited the university as an institution in a pluralistic democracy and that the College could pursue this issue in more nuanced ways, relevant to education. 

“Specific to other requests in the resolution and referendum, we approach them with an understanding of the distinctive role of a university in our pluralistic democracy. Universities are most effective in advancing positive change via the three components of our core mission: teaching, learning and research,” Rowe wrote.

SJP directly responded to this claim in its following statement, asserting hypocrisy on the College’s part. 

“In light of these two landmark events, President Rowe released a statement on the morning of Friday, March 29, less than thirteen hours after election and referendum results were released, in which she asserted that the school’s duty as a ‘pluralistic democracy’ is to ensure all students feel safe, which is why the administration is unable to satisfy all demands given by the resolution and referendum. The hypocrisy is evident: if an administration likens itself to a democracy, it should strive to act like one by hearing out the voices of its majority-who, in this instance, overwhelmingly voted in favor of the divestment referendum-rather than attempting to undermine them,” SJP said. 

The WM Organizers Collective echoed similar sentiments in their statement published Monday, April 1, where they disapproved of Rowe’s message and compared the College’s different approaches between the invasion of Ukraine and Gaza. 

“President Rowe’s response to the referendum’s passage is also indicative of a double standard in recognizing worldwide human rights abuses. The administration’s sustained silence on the genocide in Palestine stands in sharp contract to their support for the people of Ukraine as they actively and selectively overlook the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people,” the Organizers Collective’s statement reads. 

Rowe then addressed the referendum’s operative clauses, particularly the petitioners’ requests for the College and the College’s board of visitors to be more transparent in its private funding ventures. 

“WHEREAS The William & Mary Foundation lacks full transparency in its private funding; THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED That the William & Mary students call for an external audit of the finances of the 1693 Management Company to determine the extent to which The College’s endowment is tied to corporations, firms, and other groups which profit from or engage in human rights abuses globally, which includes but is not limited to the state of Israel,” the referendum reads. 

Earlier in the referendum, the petitioners describe some corporations which have been proven to have ties with the College and also profit from the continued occupation of Palestine. These include, but are not limited to: Disney, Domino’s, Hoya Tech Corp, Infineon Technologies, Keyence Corp, L’Oreal, Sage Group PLC, SAP SE ADR, Schneider Electric SE, Starbucks, Unilever and Volvo AB. 

In response to this issue, Rowe redirected the petitioners from the domain of the College administration.

“Decisions regarding the investments of most W&M-affiliated endowments (including those under the purview of the Board of Visitors) are made by the 1693 Partners Fund Board, a separate entity from the university. Detailed information on how W&M tuition dollars support academic and student services is available online,” Rowe stated. 

SJP took issue with this redirection and Rowe’s alleged attempt to absolve the administration of responsibility.

“Divestment is not impossible for this school, nor is it a new phenomenon. As per Section VIII of the Board of Visitors Investment and Spending Policy for Endowment, the ‘Board may from time to time feel it necessary and prudent to incorporate into its investment platform elements of social responsibility that reflect the Board’s thinking on important societal issues’ and ‘may direct its Investment Consultant and University staff to implement certain restrictions, impose constraints, or otherwise create separate accounts that take into consideration specific goals and objectives of social investing,’” SJP wrote. 

Divestment is not impossible for this school, nor is it a new phenomenon.”

SJP also referenced how the board previously used this policy in 2022 during the Darfur genocide.

“As we established in our referendum, the Board acted on this policy in 2022 in response to the genocide in Darfur by instructing the Investment Consultant to ‘monitor the security holdings in the separate account relationships, making sure that the underlying securities are not on any known and respected lists of companies that suggest support of the current Sudanese government.’ Divestment has been enacted before, and can be enacted again,” SJP wrote. 

The Dissenters said Rowe’s refusal to take an explicit stance is not a neutral position.

“It is a clear endorsement of this institution’s continuing complicity in Israel’s genocidal apartheid regime, a clear message of William & Mary’s refusal to learn from its past mistakes and that its veil of progress serves nothing but to whitewash its historical wrongs,” the Dissenters wrote in an email. 

Rowe ended her statement encouraging students to turn to education and dialogue.

“Ours is a caring community. An important way to express that care is to lean into the practices of constructive dialogue.” she wrote. 

Rowe also sent an email addressed to students, faculty and staff, describing her reflections on the referendum.

“In recent months, our community has held important, passionate discussions about the horrific violence in Gaza and Israel – and the immeasurable suffering we are witnessing. I appreciate the dedication of our elected student leaders at this difficult moment. They strive to listen to and faithfully represent the diverse interests of the William & Mary student body,” Rowe wrote.

The president called upon students to maintain compassion and create spaces for respectful conversations.

“All of us at William & Mary belong. We are united by our shared mission of teaching, learning and research. That is how we grow in understanding and these activities are our best tools for leading positive change. It is my constant care and commitment that William & Mary will hold open the space for respectful debate and disagreement, so that we can learn together in safety and community,” Rowe stated. 

At the University of Virginia, the student government posed a similar divestment referendum to the student body Monday, February 26, calling for the university to submit itself to an external audit of its investment portfolio and divest from companies investing in or profiting from Israel. 

The referendum passed with 5,425 students voting in support, meaning 67.87 percent of participants voted in favor. Although non-binding, the referendum hoped to serve as a call to action for the university’s administration.

The UVA board of visitors met in early March in Charlottesville and discussed the Apartheid Divest Referendum. At the beginning of the meeting, President Jim Ryan stated that the administration does not generally take positions on referendums. 

“I don’t believe the University should use its investment strategy to weigh in on one side of such a complex and deeply contested set of issues.”

Both Ryan and Rowe expressed compassion for both Israelites and Gazans, as well as the greater Jewish and Muslim people, for the many lives lost to the conflict in the region; both urged students to have boundless empathy. 

“What is important to me is that our students know that we care about all of them, that we acknowledge the pain of those who have lost loved ones in Israel or in Gaza and that we are not selective in our empathy,” Ryan stated in the board meeting. 

This sentiment was echoed in Rowe’s statement addressed to the campus community.

“Lead with questions, not the desire to win. Share personal stories. Listen thoughtfully. At heated moments, take it slow. In these ways, we make room for transformation,” Rowe wrote, as she closed her statement. 

Ultimately, in its statement, the SJP asserted its commitment to advocating for Palestinians and calling upon the College administration to be on the right side of history. 

“The Palestinian genocide continues, and the W&M administration still has the opportunity to recognize their past errors and make amends-even six months late is better than never. While this institution has repeatedly chosen to stand on the wrong side of history, this precedent is not set in stone. We urge President Rowe, along with other members of the school’s administration and Board of Visitors, to review the terms of Student Assembly’s Ceasefire in Palestine Resolution and the student-created Divestment Referendum, and reconsider their initial stance against both works,” SJP wrote. 

The Dissenters and the Organizers Collective echoed this sentiment.

“For the College to divest would mean admitting that a stance they have attempted to politicize as divisive rhetoric is the morally just one,” the Dissenters said in their email. 

“For the College to divest would mean admitting that a stance they have attempted to politicize as divisive rhetoric is the morally just one.”

“History does not look kindly upon those who are complicit in the genocide of an entire people. We urge President Rowe in the strongest terms to retract her refusal to divest from Israel,” the Organizers Collective wrote. 

The Organizers Collective ended its statement with demands addressed to President Rowe. These demands reiterate their previous requests for Rowe and the College administration to make a statement in solidarity with the Palestinian people, as well as divest from Israel and Israeli-associated companies. 

“In accordance with the overwhelming majority of the student body, we unambiguously demand President Rowe to condemn the genocide of Palestinians; call for a ceasefire in line with the Student Assembly’s Ceasefire Resolution; divest from Israel and its beneficiaries and supporters in line with the student body’s vote on the Apartheid Divest Referendum; and apologize for her inaction thus far,” the statement reads.

The SJP closed its statement with an affirmation to continue their efforts. 

“In the meantime, we continue to fight for increased education, awareness, and support of the Palestinian plight,” SJP said.

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