May 22, 2024

Gaza Protesters Depart; Seminary Students Make Similar Demands

By Donald Gilpin

After a continuous sit-in of nearly three weeks — first in the McCosh courtyard then on Cannon Green behind Nassau Hall — Princeton University’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment dispersed on the evening of May 15 following a final rally.

In a statement issued on the last day, the demonstrators declared, ”Our fight for divestment and Palestinian liberation continues undeterred.”

Described by The Daily Princetonian student newspaper as “both a protest and a community space,” the Gaza Encampment from April 25 to May 15 was a place for speeches and rallies, singing and chanting and poetry reading, town hall gatherings, conversations, meeting and eating together, and sometimes quietly reading or studying. Through rain and shine, cold and hot weather, the numbers of demonstrators fluctuated widely. The University administration did not allow tents or sleeping.

Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber sent a message to the University community on May 13 warning that the protesters must leave Cannon Green. Signs and barriers were put in place around the green stating, “This space is closed in preparation for University events,” and Eisgruber noted, “To continue the sit-in would involve significant and impermissible disruption of University activities. The protesters are of course free to express their views in many other permissible, non-disruptive ways.”

The Council of the Princeton University Community Resources Committee met on May 14 for an initial assessment of requests from the Gaza protesters for the University to divest and dissociate from companies involved in Israel’s military and apartheid policies.

In response to demonstrators’ demands that charges and disciplinary action against the students who had been arrested be dropped, Eisgruber suggested the possibility of a “restorative justice” process which could “minimize the impact of the arrest on the participating students.” He emphasized that the arrested students would be accountable for their actions and required to accept responsibility for violating University policy, but that the University “would rapidly conclude the University disciplinary process,” making it possible for the students to participate in Commencement.

The four seniors among the 13 students arrested on April 29 during the protesters’ brief occupation of the Clio Hall administration building are expected to participate in graduation ceremonies and receive their degrees.

In a May 20 vote the University faculty, 154-136, passed a non-binding resolution calling for amnesty for the arrested students, as reported by The Daily Princetonian.

In further acknowledgement of the protesters’ concerns, Eisgruber said that the University would entertain proposals for academic affiliations with Palestinian scholars, students, and institutions, as well as proposals for new curricula in Palestinian studies. He also mentioned the importance of an affinity space for Palestinian students at Princeton and the possibility of creating a working group on the experience of Palestinians at Princeton.

Mian Reflects

As Princeton University physicist Zia Mian, senior research scholar and co-director of the School of Public and International Affairs’ Program on Science and Global Security, left the thinning Gaza Solidarity Encampment last Tuesday, just one day before the last demonstrators departed from Cannon Green, he commented on what might be the lasting significance of the three-week sit-in.

“This represents the most recent part of a very long and glorious Princeton tradition and also a broader tradition of young people confronting the issues of their time with great clarity of purpose and commitment to principles of peace and justice,” he said.

Mian, who talked with many of the encampment students during the three weeks and periodically joined them in the McCosh Hall courtyard and on Cannon Green, pointed out the towering statue of John Witherspoon in the courtyard outside the University’s Firestone Library.

“When John Witherspoon was president of Princeton and the United States was not even a country but a British colony, the students of Princeton protested for the freedom and independence of the United States. Witherspoon tolerated the students’ protests even though he did not agree, and eventually he came to advocate from his pulpit for the same cause,” Mian explained.

He went on, “The Princeton president actually learned from the students the proper way to think about this event and went on to be the only university president to sign the Declaration of Independence. The students taught their teachers how to think properly about a pressing issue of their time.”

Making further connections to the actions of the Gaza protesters, Mian continued, “I believe the current generation of students is trying to do the same thing as the students who protested on this campus about Vietnam and taught their leadership about the right issue at the right time. It’s in the grand tradition of young people teaching their teachers how to think properly about an issue.”

Focusing on the lasting implications of the encampment community that developed over the three weeks, Mian noted, “What the students have done here is not just an encampment. That’s just people together in one place. What they’ve done is to create a political community where the students have learned and taught each other based on different disciplines — historians talking to sociology majors, talking to English majors, talking to art majors, talking to science majors, talking to their professors, talking to staff, talking to community members, building a political community, a microcosm which begins to think through together how they understand this issue of Palestine, the Gaza war, suffering, death, and what freedom and democracy and responsibility look like.”

Mian went on, “Out of that has come a new energy on all of these issues, not just Palestine, but on issues of responsibility, of accountability, of democracy, of protest, of the need to act when you want to protect freedom and people’s lives and not just watch. And this political community that they’ve built here is something that will keep doing work in different kinds of ways going forward.”

He added, “It’s not that when they take away the encampment everybody is going to forget what they did here or the relationships that they’ve built together. They will keep going in their own ways.”

Describing the emergence of “a huge injection of energy and hopefulness that by working together, not only by protest, we can actually make change,” he cited previous struggles for the rights of women, of people of color, of the LGBTQ community, and struggles for clean air and water, and for freedom.

“All these things have come through struggle, and now a new generation is learning how to struggle together as a political community,” he said. “That is a tremendous achievement for the students and others who have been involved in this exercise.”

Theological Seminary

Meanwhile, across town, the Princeton Theological Seminary Student Government Association (SGA) voted to call for divestment from Israel; for the Seminary to devote at least $100,000 (about 0.2 percent) of their annual endowment draw to humanitarian aid in Gaza; and for Seminary President Jonathan Lee Walton to publicly call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas War, as well as amnesty for two Seminary students and others arrested in the Princeton University protests.

The SGA resolution also called for establishment of a working group on student-trustee relations “to increase transparency and rebuild relationships that have been broken over the last few years.”

A press release from Seminarians for Peace and Justice states that they “will continue to organize on these issues in the upcoming academic year” and that as future faith leaders they “will continue to work to ensure that the Seminary’s actions in the wider world are the same as the actions they inspire us through its teaching to take in our future ministries.”

In a May 21 email Seminary Vice President for Marketing and Communications Linda Romano stated that the Seminary will be responding to the student government’s resolution. “Just as our SGA has a process for considering recommendations from the student body, we have a process we follow when engaging with resolutions passed by governing bodies,” she wrote. “Once we undertake that process, we will follow up with SGA.”