Dr. Cornel West endorses BDS, supports Ethnic Studies at University of Arizona

Following the recent direct action on the University of Arizona (UA) campus — in which an enormous mock wall was constructed to bring attention to Israel’s wall in the West Bank and the wall at the US-Mexico border — legendary intellectual and academic Dr. Cornel West formally called on the UA community to divest from corporations that profit from Israel’s illegal settlement policies and the occupation of Palestine as well as from “immigrant and indigenous suffering and youth cultural censorship in Arizona and nationwide.”

In an open letter to the UA community, including students, faculty, staff, and the administration, Dr. West stated:

“Powerful social movements such as the one that helped end South African apartheid have shown that when world governments fail to enforce the rule of law, international civil community must arise to meet the challenge of upholding fundamental human rights and securing justice. Ethnic studies youth activists and groups like Jewish Voice for Peace are doing just that. As [South African Archbishop Desmond] Tutu and many others point out in the case of the Palestinians—as well as that of Latina/o immigrants and indigenous peoples in the U.S.—the tactic of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) is an effectively nonviolent means of exerting moral and economic pressures to end unjust policies, from racial profiling to repressive laws, to foreign occupation and land settlement.  Perhaps the most vulnerable right in these situations is the right of education, because of the endangered cultural future it represents.  Those in the United States and Israel who hold the levers of power and influence over such policies must be beckoned to the negotiating table so that vulnerable peoples can anticipate a peaceful future through living a just and honorable peace.”

Identifying Caterpillar and Motorola, two US corporations that have entrenched contracts with the Israeli military, Dr. West said that such companies are responsible for the “treachery targeting our youth’s future” and praised the current campaign launched by JVP to urge giant pension fund TIAA-CREF to divest from such corporations.

Connecting the struggles between Palestine and Arizona (and other immigrant communities across the US) has been a powerful movement that keeps growing more and more vocal. Especially with the shocking presence of Arizona’s anti-immigrant “Minutemen” — whose members have been given the green light by state officials to shoot-to-kill undocumented immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border — the solidarity movements bridging Palestinian and American indigenous peoples have been intensifying. Elizabeth Dake, a student and ASUA Women’s Resource Center Health and Sexuality Chair, stated in the Arizona Daily Wildcat (UA’s on-campus newspaper) on 25 April that:

“Denying education to Palestinian students and eliminating ethnic studies in Arizona are necessary steps to maintain oppressive, pro-corporate policies. The UofA currently holds contracts with Motorola, Caterpillar…which support Israeli occupation of Palestine and anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona. Divestment is the strongest statement our university can make in support for worldwide human rights. We, as members of the university community, demand that our administration end our university’s contracts with these corporations and stand up for human rights around the world and at home.”

Dr. West’s endorsement of the Palestinian-led call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) comes amidst a time of severe attacks not only against Latin American immigrants, but of Ethnic Studies programs across Arizona campuses — a move that has sparked nationwide outrage and protest from students, academics and anti-racist activists. In a joint press release, No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) stated that:

West’s letter came on the heels of an Ethnic Studies youth movement that is shaking Arizona and the nation to its bones.

This past Tuesday night, when the Tucson Unified District School Board (TUSD) was to vote on a fateful measure that would effectively dismantle Ethnic Studies programs as core classes for students, the popular youth coalition UNIDOS (United Non-discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies) and dozens of supporters occupied the TUSD headquarters. Minutes before the meeting was to begin, 9 UNIDOS activists rushed the Board platform and chained themselves to Board members’ chairs and dais, setting up a banner that read, “UNIDOS Presents the Youth School Board.” The Board was unable to hold their meeting and rescheduled for a later time. Asiya Mir, organizer with UNIDOS and founder of Tucson High School Students for Justice in Palestine, was one of the 9 activists who chained themselves to the board. Mir believes the TUSD board will not yield from selling out the students’ education. However, she said, “We stopped them from passing the vote tonight. For tonight, it’s a victory.”

Dr. West explained in his letter that Ethnic Studies programs:

“[are] about the quest for truth, from the standpoint of the weak and the vulnerable who are rising up to speak, to educate, to struggle and to build justice from the ground up … Bold Arizona youth who are fending off attacks on their cherished Ethnic Studies in an environment of racism and hostility; courageous Palestinian youth who aim to preserve and defend their own fragile Ethnic Studies from the violent, cultural destruction of a vicious, 44-year Israeli occupation—an occupation whose length continually represses the memory of a peaceful time … A decent education cannot be limited to tolerating youth accessing their ethnic and cultural history but must be about facilitating their right to do so, without the hindrance of state or corporate exploiters.”

West continued:

“Attacks on education are big business. Greed is amuck in Arizona and in occupied Palestine. U.S. corporations like Caterpillar and Motorola—and others especially in the prison-Industrial complex—continue to profit from the suffering of peoples who seek dignity and self-determination in Arizona. Similar corporations profit from the misery of occupied and distressed peoples in Palestine.”


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).