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Student Government sends out a petition to cut ties with Tel Aviv University; administration maintains “apolitical” stance

On May 4th, the Ashoka University Student Government (AUSG) circulated a petition for the university to cut all ties with Tel Aviv University in light of the ongoing genocide in Gaza. In an email to the student body, the SG cited the Gaza Health Ministry, which reports that at least 34,596 Palestinians have lost their lives so far. 77,816 people have been injured due to Israel’s bombardment of Palestinian territory. Israel has blocked all sources of food, water and electricity in Gaza, forcing a famine.

As the violence persists, educational institutions across the globe have aligned with the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement that calls for the boycott of companies and institutions complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Tel Aviv University is one of these institutions.

Ashoka University’s website details its research partnership with Tel Aviv University. This includes “faculty visits for teaching, student mobility (outbound and inbound), research collaboration, short-term study opportunities, as well as joint programmes”. The SG cited this in the petition email as well.

The Edict reached out to the Office of Global Education and Strategic Partnerships (GESP) to learn more about the nature of the university’s relationship with Tel Aviv University. There was, however, no response.

The SG’s petition makes several demands from the university administration. This entails an immediate suspension of “all existing academic and research collaborations with Tel Aviv University” and no new agreements or partnerships until steps are taken to address the ongoing human rights violations. It also asks for the university to consult relevant stakeholders such as Palestinian rights advocates so that the university’s actions “align with international standards of human rights and justice”.

The petition notes that Tel Aviv University receives funding from weapons manufacturing companies such as Elbit Systems, Rafael and partners with Shin Bet and Mossad, both Israeli intelligence agencies. It highlights that the collaboration makes Ashoka too “complicit in these violations” of human rights, social justice and academic freedom. As part of the international academic community, the SG, in their petition, call for the university to uphold its commitment to “ethical conduct and human rights”.

On May 7th, the SG met with the Office of the Pro-Vice Chancellor to discuss the demands of the petition. In another email to the student body, the SG said that the university administration empathised with the petition but “under no circumstances would consider ending its ties with Tel Aviv University over the matter”. The administration told the SG that ending relations with Tel Aviv University would constitute a "political stance" that the university is unwilling to take. The “University does not take political stances”, maintained the administration. 

In an email correspondence with The Edict, the SG said that they intended to engage in “meaningful dialogue with the Ashokan community acknowledging why such divestment is necessary and what additional steps that University can take moving forward”. They felt the need for such a step to demonstrate solidarity with both the Palestinian cause and the protests taking place in the United States. More than 100 colleges across the United States are organising protests to cut ties with Tel Aviv University and divest funds from Israel. 

The students of Columbia University, who are the frontrunners in this movement, have received constant backlash from the administration. According to the Columbia Spectator, the New York Police Department (NYPD) arrested 109 individuals from the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on May 1st. Similar scenes are observed at Harvard University, the University of Chicago and the University of California, Los Angeles.

As of May 10th, the petition has 38 faculty signatures, 101 alumni signatures and 418 student signatures. However, the petition has garnered mixed responses from the students. While many students stand in solidarity with the Student Government, some think that there are better courses of action than the petition. The key difference between the two groups of students is the role of the university in the context of genocide. Few students think that Ashoka must remain apolitical while others believe it needs to take a stance.

Responding to the SG’s petition, Amaan (UG’24) quoted from the BDS movement website which states that Tel Aviv University is “involved in developing weapon systems and military doctrines deployed in Israel’s recent war crimes in Lebanon and Gaza” to highlight the university’s complicity in the genocide.

They also pointed out the Dahiya Doctrine, which is a war strategy that Israel uses. A Washington Post report mentions that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) commander Gadi Eisenkot articulated the doctrine by saying, “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases”. They expressed that in such a situation “an institution can either be complicit or non-complicit.” Tying it to other instances in history, they further mentioned that academic boycotts were effective in increasing international pressure to end apartheid in South Africa.

Sankalp Dasmohapatra (UG’24), outgoing President of the Student Government, writing in the capacity of a student, affirmed that the mere existence of a university and its relationship with land, people and knowledge is political. “We cannot pretend that the existence of the University is not political unless we intend to be intellectually dishonest in doing so,” he said, in the continuing email thread.

United Student Federation (USF), a political collective also released a statement on May 11th that supported SG’s petition. Taking a Pro-Palestine stance, USF’s statement maintains that “there is no scope of remaining “apolitical” or assuming that a university like Ashoka must remain neutral”. They also attached a pledge that mentions Tel Aviv University’s complicity in the genocide and demands that Ashoka University collaborate with Palestinian institutions and researchers “to reaffirm their commitment for Palestinian liberation”.

Since the release of USF’s statement, many students have sent batch-wide emails with a pledge to break ties with Tel Aviv University and stand with the Palestinian cause.

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