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When I first toured Brandeis in 2011 there were signs posted all over reading “We demand cage free eggs!” When I came back for admitted students day I waltzed into Sherman and much to my delight found new signs, “Now proudly serving cage free eggs!”
“Brandeis,” I thought to myself, “really gets stuff done. This is a school that truly cares about justice.” And so I enrolled, class of 2017. In the years following I learned that cage-free is an essentially meaningless distinction that just barely keeps chickens from the highest level of confinement. But that was only the beginning of my disillusionment.
In the past month, Brandeis University has derecognized Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), surveilled a vigil for the Palestinian people killed by the Israeli military and allowed Zionist students to film and mock mourners, harassed students for hanging up pro-Palestine posters, put out multiple statements of indiscriminate support for Israel, and, on Nov. 10, set campus police, Waltham police and an armed private security group on a peaceful rally for Palestine. Seven students and community members were violently arrested and their charges have not been dropped.
I would love to say this is not the Brandeis I went to, but unfortunately repression of student activism has just as robust a tradition as the activism itself, that same activism the school so readily packages and markets. My junior year, a group led by Black students called Concerned Students 2015 occupied the Bernstein-Marcus administrative building with 13 demands for racial justice on campus. I joined the 13-day sit-in, named Ford Hall 2015 after the original 1969 Ford Hall takeover, as an ally. Over the course of those 13 days Black students were harassed, armed police would rattle on the doors in the middle of the night to keep us awake, and when it came time for interim president Lisa Lynch to read the implementation plan agreed upon in negotiations, she was over two hours late to the meeting, leaving us waiting outside in the cold rain. While we were waiting in good faith, the building we had been living in (and had already agreed to clean up and leave) was hastily emptied, leading to many people’s personal belongings getting lost or broken.
In my time as a student I also saw how Brandeis offered no support or protection to multiple students who were doxed and harassed for speaking out on various issues. On one occasion the senior vice president for students and enrollment, Andrew Flagel, took it upon himself to condemn the comments made by a student on her personal Twitter account all while she was receiving Islamophobic, racist and sexist threats of physical violence.
So no, Brandeis does not get stuff done, nor does it truly care about justice. After all, let us refocus on the issue at hand. While the administration was bringing in police reinforcements to arrest teenagers for peacefully supporting social justice at a so-called social justice institution, Israel (with the full material support of the US) killed over 20,000 Palestinians, and left nearly 2 million displaced. Since the “humanitarian pause” (as if there’s anything humanitarian about “pausing” a genocide), Israel has continued the killing and taken more captives than it has released.
After divesting from South African apartheid in 1973, the Brandeis Board of Trustees released general guidelines for responsible investment which stated, “Where a corporation’s conduct is found to be clearly and gravely offensive to the university community’s sense of social justice and where it is found that the exercising of shareholder rights and powers is unlikely to correct the injury, consideration should be given to selling that corporation’s securities”. An ethnic cleansing in which the average age of death is five is pretty “clearly and gravely offensive” to my “sense of social justice” and yet divestment from Israel seems unfathomable when president Ron Liebowitz is sending out emails saying things like, “Earlier this week, I reiterated to our community that Brandeis supports Israel and its right to defend itself, and that this will not change.” True to his word, Liebowitz has in fact sent multiple emails with nearly this exact verbiage.
But despite all this, now is not the time for current students to despair. Brandeis has a moral imperative to reinstate SJP, call for dropping all charges against those arrested on Nov. 10, and stop fanning the flames of genocide with uncritical statements of support for Israel’s war crimes. Whether or not it does, this institution will not save you because no institution will ever save any of us. The sooner we can free ourselves from the idea that it might, the better. Because when we do, we start to build up the trust and skills and community that we need to sustain our fights for the long haul outside of the university, the state, or any other inevitably deficient body of power. I will never donate to Brandeis, but I’m still friends with people I slept next to on the floors of Bernstein-Marcus. I still know how to do a banner drop because I practiced off the roof of the science center. I still feel grateful to have a nuanced, intersectional analysis of structures of oppression shaped in large part by the people I met in college, the people who radicalized me despite our university’s best efforts.
So keep fighting, keep building, keep raging against the administration and keep raging beyond that. And know that I, and hundreds of alumni, are standing with you. Free Palestine and enjoy your cage-free eggs.