Our Intifada

10588 img our intifada
A graphic of a pro-Palestinian protest, with a demonstrator holding a sign that reads, "No more research for IOF."

Publisher's Note (June 21, 4:40 PM): The web version below has been extended to the full piece following editing and review.

Publisher's Note (June 13, 1:40 PM): The following article was abridged to fit in print from a longer piece submitted by the author, which is the version currently published in web form; the full piece will be published in its entirety in the coming days.


…The ones we love have gone. 

They left.  

Their ships have not cast down anchors 

The lines of the distant port  

Have not erased the eyes of the departed. 

Oh my sad homeland: 

How much we, and you, have sipped 

Cups of bitter juice 

In festivals of sorrow and death.  

We are not satiated, nor are you. 

Indeed, we will remain thirsty 

Near the sad wells, we will remain, 


Until the dead are raised,  

Embracing the dawn, 

With an undying vision 

That nostalgia will not corrode. 

— Fadwa Tuqan, from “The ones we love have gone” 


Spring in America witnessed the most impressive wave of student militancy in half a century. Like a gale of rain, tens of thousands of students on nearly 140 college campuses in 45 of 50 states built encampments, occupied buildings, and committed acts of civil disobedience in solidarity with peers across 35 countries. Our demand to hostile administrators and the government is clear: end the US and Israel’s horrific assault on the besieged Palestinians of Gaza and divest from institutional ties to Israeli apartheid. At MIT, that demand assumed a very specific and modest articulation. We publicly challenged MIT to stop conducting weapons and surveillance research for the Israeli Ministry of Defense and immediately end Israeli military funding for campus research, the same way MIT voluntarily and unilaterally cut research ties mid-stream with Moscow’s Skolkovo Institute in 2022 following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and with Saudi Aramco in 2020 following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.  

To beat down the intifada at-tulab or “student’s uprising” as the Arab press dubbed it, police forces across the nation arrested more than 3,000 of us. Not since the Vietnam War perhaps have the children of the bourgeoisie tasted the rawness of state violence and agitator prejudice that many black Americans in the U.S. and Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories endure year after year – the reflection of your face in the riot shield, a cop’s knee on your back, asphalt on your face, tear gas in your eyes, racists taunting in your ears, and the whole corrupt leviathan of a punitive system draining you of your will to live: police lockdowns, bail, court dates, campus inquisitions, evictions, doxing. It was fitting to me that the twin horses to emerge from the Great Recession – Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter – would see their tactics fuse to fight a war against war on the Holy Land, to be waged on an institutional terrain, the universities, where the contradictions of American capitalism displaced for years into higher education had finally met the better angels of our nature.  

I say ‘children of the bourgeoise’, but the penchant of arm-chair critics to belittle us as a callow, ‘privileged’ strain of the body politic always felt tiresome. The circle of the dark-skinned working class and the circle of the prestigious university overlap. At MIT, the children of the rich receive virtually no admissions advantage conditional on test score, and the most striking militancy nationally came from state colleges like Urbana-Champaign, Rutgers-Newark, Cal State, and CUNY. From our vantage point on Kresge Lawn, the peculiar fact about the encampment was not its composition. Ours was a popular, broad coalition of students from all backgrounds of life – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, atheist, Black, White, queer, Desi, Hispanic, and so on.  

Peculiar was the admin’s apoplectic response – its blind and myopic belligerence. In fact, it was president Minouche Shafik’s fateful decision on April 17 to sic the New York Police Department on her own students at Columbia that did the most to rocket the encampments into high gear. Spectacles of violence, as Tobi Haslett once wrote, can be radicalizing magic actions. They set into motion social forces no one can fully anticipate. Illuminated by this backfire, the college administrators with their fidgety fingers on the 911 button appear, as Engels and Marx once cribbed from Goethe, “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”


MIT and the Nation 

Although the media floodlight made our intifada seem spontaneous, the truth is we built on earlier momentum. Since October, our movement at MIT had notched real gains. Despite the February ban on the Coalition Against Apartheid, our scrutiny pushed MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) to quietly remove from its grant listings a seed fund sponsored by Lockheed Martin, which existed to connect MIT researchers with its weapon offices in Israel. An early target of our divestment action, this was an unsung victory. It accompanied rounds of naming and shaming the projects and laboratories which took money from the Israeli military. At least one PI promised to concerned workers in the lab that it will not renew Israeli funding. Conversations between other PIs and lab workers are reportedly ongoing. By March, the MIT Undergraduate Association passed a campus-wide referendum with the highest turnout in its history and a 63.7 percent yes-vote, calling on MIT to immediately cut all research and financial ties with Israeli Ministry of Defense. The Graduate Student Union soon followed in April, with a referendum passing by 70.5 percent.  

By mid-April, more than a thousand MIT students had signed the Scientists Against Apartheid pledge, and on April 21, we established the Scientists Against Genocide Encampment (SAGE) on the very Kresge lawn where in 1987, the original Coalition Against Apartheid set up a shantytown to pressure MIT to divest from apartheid South Africa. SAGE was not new. In fact, our whole repertoire of contention – the building occupations, encampments, sit-ins, walk-outs, art builds and so on – is part of the political tradition of students in this country. We used it during Vietnam and Iraq wars, the Occupy movement, Free South Africa, and fossil fuel divestment campaigns. In fact, our campaign drew on the memory of MIT’s past role in militarism and apartheid. “MIT, MIT we know which side you’re on,” we chanted. “Remember South Africa, remember Vietnam.”  

This political tradition collided with the Palestine exception to free speech, making an elite backlash overdetermined. Mass arrests soon hit UT Austin, Dartmouth, Virginia, UCLA, Northeastern, and Emerson College. On April 30, at Washington University, history professor Steve Tamari was beaten unconscious and hospitalized for filming the police riot. In my hometown of Atlanta, Emory students faced tear gas, rubber bullets, and tasers. On video, I watched philosophy professor Noëlle McAfee carried away in handcuffs, while a gang of cops held down a black student, repeatedly tasing him in the thigh. Snipers took the rooftops of Indiana and Ohio State, while at Dartmouth, the cops threw to the ground Annelise Orleck, the 65-year-old chair of Jewish studies, and dragged her off to jail. The school where she had worked thirty years then banned her from campus.  

This McCarthyism is alive and well. The University of Minnesota rescinded a job offer to an Israeli professor Raz Segal at the school’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies center after he argued in the pages of the progressive Jewish Currents that Israel’s war on Gaza is “a textbook case of genocide.” My Harvard colleague and Palestinian human rights lawyer Rabea Eghbariah had his legal scholarship pulled from Harvard Law Review last year just before publication, while the board of directors Columbia Law Review recently took down the whole website for publishing Eghbariah’s article “Toward Nakba as a Legal Concept.” 

In Boston, no sooner had the blood dried on the walls near Emerson College the night of April 26, when MIT comrades were beaten by police and thrown in jail, did Northeastern administrators bolt to arrest their own students on a risible excuse, alleging that pro-Palestine students engaged in antisemitic speech. As a Daily Beast article aptly titled it, “Pro-Israel Agitator Shouts ‘Kill the Jews,’ Gets Everyone Else Arrested.” Yet it was horrific double tap strike at UCLA that set the tone for MIT’s own tactics. On April 30, a mob of neo-Nazis and Zionists armed with knives, clubs and explosives descended on the UCLA encampment. Twenty-five students were packed away to the hospital for head injuries, lacerations, and broken bones.  

According to Robin Kelley, the besieged at the UCLA encampment called desperately for LAPD and California Highway Patrol to quell the agitators’ violence. Operators hung up. When hours later, the police did move, only faculty and students were arrested. This tactic they repeated on May 1, the night of the camp’s destruction, when a traumatized and beleaguered student movement facing an army of riot cops took rubber bullets, stun grenades, and nearly 200 arrests. We soon saw similarly heavy-handed approaches at Columbia, NYU, CUNY, and UChicago.  

At first MIT administrators opted for what seemed a more subtle strategy – banning Al-Jazeera from the camp, stalling on negotiations, and framing our demands in cherry-picked and misleading ways, even as  the pro-war agitators become increasingly antagonistic. We continued to prod MIT for pressure points, briefly establishing a second welcome center on May 1 in honor of the slain journalist Wael Dahdouh. Administrators stalled. On May 3, I awoke to the scraping of metal fences set up to encircle the encampment. These fences constricted egress, but the admin and police cynically alleged the fences and mesh screen were there for ‘safety’ from pro-war agitators, whom the Israeli consulate had arranged to descend on MIT’s Lobby 7 steps in an unnerving echo of the Israeli consulate rally at UCLA a few days before.  

After an exhausting day of taking verbal abuse from these agitators and after a weekend of broken promises to remove the fences, their real intent became clear. The walls served not to protect us but to isolate and humiliate. “No one wants to look at you” one policeman told us. The scene developed an uncanny resemblance to those Palestinian villages like Qalqilya which are ringed on all sides by the separation wall. I watched as agitators imprinted their Israeli flags and rape propaganda on the walls around us with increasingly shameless triumphalism, while the MIT administration, in a surrealist finale, imposed a checkpoint to enter and exit the encampment, as if we were living in the walled Palestinian enclave of Bir Nabala during olive harvest time and the Israeli occupiers had decided to inflict collective punishment.  

This was May 6, the day of the fabled Siege on Kresge, when chancellor Melissa Nobles and president Sally Kornbluth, displaying the moral backbone of a custard pie, issued a hastily written and confused ultimatum to suspend anyone who stayed in the encampment past 2:30pm. Complying with human rights law and MIT precedent was evidently too politically costly for the admin, so they chose to inflict violence in the name of campus safety. As police swelled, a high school march arrived to block Massachusetts Avenue for several hours while my comrades occupied Lobby 7. I, along with four of my MIT peers, peacefully stood our ground in the SAGE, preparing to face the jail cell. “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his treatise On Civil Disobedience. I will never forget the cathartic feeling when MIT students in a spontaneous outburst of solidarity and defiance, overwhelmed the barricades which had done so much to isolate and humiliate us and retook the camp as state troopers retreated in exasperation. “I’d never felt an ecstasy more complicated,” Tobi Haslett once said, “or a freedom less false.” 

SAGE survived another four days against the incursions of increasingly aggressive counter-protesters, power cuts by the admin, and heavy rains, even as we expanded the front of protest escalations to the actual site of weapons research. It was there on May 9 in front of the Stata parking garage that MIT students braved arrests for civil disobedience for the first time in MIT’s living memory. These escalations reflected the tactical insights of the U.S. Civil Rights movement as we understood them. MIT students decided that the best way to conserve our reserves was to avoid a large-scale arrest event like what happened to our colleagues at Emerson and Northeastern. Instead, we opted for carefully planned, small-scale actions that could create what Martin Luther King Jr. called in his Birmingham Jail letter, “a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” If divestment was too politically divisive, we resolved to make investment more divisive.  

On May 10, when riot police (we estimated 200) armed to the teeth and on thousands of dollars of overtime pay, emerged in the dead of night to demolish the encampment and arrest the survivors, they found to their surprise an empty, quiet affair. Only ten students went to jail. Despite the intimidation, dissent will continue until MIT complies with its obligations to laws such as the Genocide, Geneva, and Apartheid Conventions, the Leahy Laws, material support clause, and the ethical funding criteria outlined in MIT’s own Suri report. Disruptions will continue. Already in California, United Auto Workers Local 4811, representing 48,000 graduate students, voted to go on strike protesting the arrests. Encampments have restarted at UCLA, Columbia, and elsewhere and continue in Europe and Canada. At MIT, we held a People’s Graduation on May 28 and walked out of commencement to lay roses in the Charles River honoring the martyred schoolkids of Gaza. The roses reminded me of the anti-fascist White Rose students in Munich during the reign of the Nazis who wrote in one of their final leaflets, “We will not keep silent. We are your guilty conscience.”  

To punish political speech and acts of civil disobedience, MIT suspended me and dozens of other students on a dubious interim basis. We were guilty before even hearing our charges. Their letters read like a page from Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Although some of us are still on the chopping block, many cases were shoddily constructed and tossed out by the faculty-led Committee on Discipline.  The real aim for most of them was not to stick. Rather, the MIT admin desperately needed a public show of force to mollify the pro-Israel crowd and tie up organizers with the campus inquisitors until the summer. Force they showed. Students were banned from campus, classes, exams, and graduation. Our funding and salaries were frozen. Some were illegally evicted from MIT housing without court orders and still face imminent deportation and years-long bans.  

History will vindicate us once the moral panic about Palestine activism fades and the belief that Jews and Arabs between the river and the sea should live in freedom and equality becomes as obvious as the fact that Israeli settler apartheid and US support for it are great barriers to that future. As Arthur Miller wrote in his 1953 play The Crucible, an allegory for the McCarthyism of his time, who is deemed guilty and innocent can shift rapidly in an era of Salem witch trials: “Until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven.” Our conscience at least is clear, and we’re still gunning for the day when the devil falls. 


Why We Fight 

Yet our problems pale compared to the suffering of the Palestinian people. The Gaza Strip is a densely populated, ghettoized territory six miles wide and a marathon long, where 2 million people are trapped and cannot leave. In just 7 months, the Israeli military with the full backing of the US government has killed at least 40,000 human beings in Gaza, including about 5,400 students, 260 teachers and 100 university professors. Oxfam reported in January that Gaza’s death rate is the highest recorded of any armed conflict in the 21st century – more than those in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Ukraine. UN rapporteurs in April reported that Israeli bombs, using AI algorithms called “Gospel” and “Lavender,” have leveled all 11 universities in Gaza along with 195 heritage sites, 13 public libraries, 80 percent of the schools, 227 mosques, three churches, and the Central Archives containing some 150 years of history. The Israeli military has also destroyed some 40 percent of Gaza’s farm and orchard lands, along with many forms of life-sustaining, civilian infrastructure – water facilities, bakeries, roads, and telecom towers.  

There are no fully functional hospitals in Gaza. At least 31 out of 36 of them have been damaged or destroyed. Twelve remain partially operational, where doctors are forced to sever limbs without anesthetics, and infants die in incubators when fuel runs out. There are now an estimated 19,000 orphans in Gaza and 3,000 child amputees. Sepsis, hepatitis, dysentery, diarrhea, and jaundice are spreading. The death counts are meticulously recorded by Gaza’s non-partisan health officials, and their data are judged reliable by the medical journal The Lancet, the WHO, and even the Israeli army. However because medical and morgue services in Gaza are by now so degraded, the numbers of the dead and wounded are likely undercounts. Thousands more are buried under rubble or forcibly disappeared into Israeli prison sites like Sde Teiman, where survivors report mass abuse, torture, and rape.  

As I write, the state of Israel continues to throttle humanitarian aid in defiance of injunctions by the International Court of Justice. Oxfam reported three months ago that people in northern Gaza survive on 245 calories a day. Outside the besieged strip, Israeli citizens place rocks in the road and attack aid convoys. We’ve seen this before. As a Serbian genocidaire admitted about the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, “how do you get someone to surrender in a war like this? You starve them to death.” You create famine. This time, the Israeli government does it with the supermajority blessing of its Israeli Jewish populace, with eager U.S. and German weapon suppliers, cabinet officials, major parties, diplomatic corps, and legacy press like New York Times, Economist, Atlantic, and Der Spiegel.  

In fact, the American decision to defund UNRWA is a clear signal, like the State Department’s dutiful UN vetoes and rubber stamps for Israeli decisions, that American politicians stretching far beyond Joseph Biden, are quite pleased with the starvation and the massacres. They just want it done more quietly. Supermajorities of both parties in Congress voted to defund UNRWA and arm Israel with more artillery this spring. “Finish Them!” as Republican party contender Nikki Haley blithely wrote on an Israeli artillery shell a few weeks ago. 

Any rumbling of discomfort in American officialdom is quickly smothered by legislative logroll, careerist ambition, and a new resolve to be more subtle. Notes like “I welcome the rescue” by secretary of state Anthony Blinken send the same message as Nikki Haley’s. Blinken was referring to a recent Israeli hostage rescue operation which massacred hundreds of people in the Gaza refugee camp of Nuseirat to create a tactical diversion. But Hamas had already agreed to a full prisoner-swap paired with a credible, permanent ceasefire in early May. As Johnathan Cohn wrote, “if you can secure the release of hostages via a ceasefire deal but prefer military attacks as a strategy instead, it is because you affirmatively want to kill people.” Their moral principles are as detached as the Gaza pier now drifting away in the surf, even as the Israeli public sink deeper into collective psychosis and fascism. Without global outcry and the brave work of Gaza’s citizen journalists, it would likely be worse.   

There is a word for “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” It’s genocide. It happened to native Americans in the 19th century, Roma and Jews in fascist Europe, and Tutsis, Rohingya, and Bosnians in my generation. Genocide is happening now in Gaza. Frequently, Zionist critics dismiss the genocide charge as rhetorical inflammation – an exercise in competitive victimhood. They point to survivors and say they’re not dead yet so it can’t be genocide. They call it war so it can’t be genocide, as if nearly all genocides do not unfold in the context of war. They say it is only genocide when Palestinians are killed en mass for the sole, official reason of being Palestinian, not under the limp pretext of Israeli security or collateral damage.  

Faced with the evidence, they deflect and say that if there is genocide, it’s invariably Hamas’ fault – a line of reasoning that the Ottoman pasha used against the ARF in 1917 to justify the Armenian genocide, and which Himmler and Goebbels deployed against the Polish and Jewish underground in World War II. Zionists act as if the ICC prosecutor needs an extermination order signed by Benjamin Netanyahu himself to “put to death men and women, infants and children” – that genocidal passage of Hebrew scripture (1 Samuel 15:2) which the MIT alumnus did invoke last October to rally the troops. But Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who introduced the word genocide in the 1940s had a more sophisticated understanding of the term: 

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation…It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups. 

It is difficult to find a more accurate description of Israeli policy in Gaza. For months, students were chided to calm down and be patient, that administrators were very concerned about “the conflict in the Middle East,” that the U.S. government will self-correct, and that divestment was impossible. But the massacres continued, and MIT shamelessly renewed its Israeli military funding. After weeks of warning the Likud government that invading Rafah would be a ‘red line,’ Joe Biden’s office promptly folded to Netanyahu like a lawn chair on May 15, dutifully signing off on another $1 billion of weapon transfers as the Israeli military moved in on a trapped population of 1.5 million people it had methodically corralled into a purported ‘safe zone.’  

Yesterday, I saw on video the Gazan sun set over the darkening ruins of a city of ghosts, the barren rebar and concrete evoking the cityscapes of WWII-era Guernica and Tokyo or Mariupol and Aleppo today. It was lurid. About 70% of the housing stock is destroyed, and 1.5 million people are expelled into the south. The day before, I watched a father in Rafah hold up the beheaded corpse of his child, while the refugee tents behind him burned in the night. Today, I saw another father kiss goodbye to his lifeless infant. Tomorrow, I will wonder if my friends in Gaza – We’am, Fadi, Mohammed – are dead yet and maybe send one an e-SIM card. I will then probably witness some new horror and be told they do it in the name of the Jewish people and Jewish safety, in the name of a US-led ‘rules-based order’ and in the name of God and democracy. As Tacitus wrote two thousand years ago, “they make a wasteland and call it peace.” Here in leafy Cambridge in the disquieting heat of June, the verses of Anne Sexton haunt me:  


Gone, I say and walk from church,    

refusing the stiff procession to the grave,    

letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.    

It is June. I am tired of being brave. 


We drive to the Cape. I cultivate 

myself where the sun gutters from the sky,    

where the sea swings in like an iron gate 

and we touch. In another country people die. 


Of course, the war on Gaza is not a freak event but part of a longer process of enclosure and settler colonialism in the Holy Land. For more than half a century, the state of Israel has enshrined a legal regime of apartheid – the domination of one ethnic or national group over another – present in all aspects of non-Jewish, Palestinian life: voting, marriage, property rights, habeas corpus, freedom of worship, internal movement, immigration, and rights to land, water, and shelter. Apartheid is present in Israel proper and the territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza occupied since 1967. It has inspired violent, at times brutal resistance by the PLO and Hamas, as well as civil disobedience and a failed peace process. The apartheid analogy is not a recent polemical invention. Comparisons to European settler projects in Africa were popular among the architects of the Zionist state: Theodore Herzl, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin. The comparison is endorsed today by established human rights groups in Israel and abroad.  

Apartheid in Israel predates October 7, 2023 and will continue absent a global campaign against it. Even if, God forbid, 100,000 or 200,000 Palestinians die in Gaza, the Palestinian people will not be erased from the land. There will still be between the river and the sea about 7 million Palestinians and 7 million Israeli Jews, one national group without the same basic rights as the other. That is why the movement for Palestinian liberation at MIT chants with love: long live the intifada. Long live any uprising to resist a society whose cruelty has become insufferable: the 1943 Warsaw ghetto intifada against the Nazis, the 1916 Easter intifada in Ireland against the British empire, the intifadas against Arab dictatorships in 2011, the Palestinian intifadas of the 1980s and early 2000s, the George Floyd intifada of 2020, or our global students’ intifada today. As scientists of conscience, we say let there be no peace for MIT as long as it continues to abet atrocities against our brethren in the Holy Land.  

A squishy humanitarian pity is woefully inadequate. As my comrade Austin Cole reminded us at the People’s Graduation, resistance to evil is at the heart of love. We owe it to ourselves to resist, to disrupt, to sabotage, to not go down gently, and to rage against the dying of the light. The alternative is spiritual death. The alternative is that we degrade ourselves. We adjust to a profoundly cruel society and forfeit our humanity in the process. Generations of black radicals have taught me this dehumanizing impulse of the colonial condition: Aimé Césaire, James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, and Achille Mbembe. “Either we get a fair world, or we keep getting killed” wrote the feminist Andrea Dworkin. Or as the Psalmist said: it is a time to act for God, for they are desecrating your Torah. This redemptive quality of resistance makes me believe that the names of the martyred children in Gaza are written in the Book of Life. “The tyrant dies and his rule is over” wrote Søren Kierkegaard, “the martyr dies and his rule begins.”  

Some say that university campaigns are counter-productive to the goal of “an alliance for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.” But a peace process brings nothing to the oppressed without leverage. It was the slow, pain-staking work of globally isolating the South African apartheid regime and provoking a crisis of faith in the National Party leadership (along with Pretoria’s military losses) that paved the way for mass enfranchisement and a multi-racial alliance to take power in the 1990s. Here at MIT, we are building an alliance today, with the hope of going beyond the South African case to realize even deeper promises of repair, decolonization, and equality. Our coalition includes many Palestinians at MIT. It also includes many Jews (even a few Jewish Israelis) alongside a broad, multi-ethnic fabric of student organizers. The encampment was the most visible manifestation of that solidarity, but our core demands are shared by the MIT public. Submit any thoughtful resolution for a vote to MIT (faculty, undergrad, grad, staff) that expresses solidarity for Israeli and Palestinian lives lost and calls to cut research ties with the Israeli military, and we will win it. 


Towards a Political Economy of University Divestment 

For a demand so popular, it may seem puzzling why MIT and other schools chose violence. Israeli military funding is a minuscule fraction (only .03%) of MIT’s 2023 allocated research sponsorship, while many university endowments already have responsible investment policies that bar ‘sin sectors’ like tobacco, alcohol, porn, and sometimes fossil fuels. An extension to the arms industry or Israeli bond market could be framed as a compliance decision. Indeed in Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, and Norway, universities and wealth funds have already committed to divesting from the Israeli occupation, along with trustees of Union Theological Seminary and some US churches. At MIT, recent decisions on research sponsored by the Skolkovo Foundation and Saudi Aramco provide good narrative cover, and a coordinated announcement with a school like Harvard could reduce reputational fall-out. Why bother with nightsticks, tear gas, and rubber bullets when you can concede? Alternatively, the universities could have just waited out the encampments, offering token gestures to buy time until organizers graduate or summer break dampens momentum.  

To understand why U.S. universities like MIT chose violence, it’s useful to sketch their decision-making structure and the balance of forces that pull them at various levels. At MIT, the bans on individual students were made by the Division of Student Life, now headed by David Randall and Suzy Nelson. These deans answer to the office of chancellor Melissa Nobles, who along with the various provosts and vice provosts reports to the MIT president Sally Kornbluth. The president along with the treasurer and other corporation officers are in turn appointed by a 75-member board of trustees mostly composed of old and wealthy donor alumni. At all levels of this hierarchy, professional incentives overwhelmingly stack toward a preference for risk-aversion. At the lower levels, this is because office-holders can be reprimanded or fired for refusing directives and policies, and a key metric for their performance is how they deal with students and keep the campus running smoothly.  

At the higher levels, law and order is a priority because the elites worry about the university’s image. Their incentives are strongly aligned with whatever will bring MIT more prestige and donor money. In fact, among the most important criteria for the trustees in choosing a president is will this person attract more donations? Here it can be tempting to crudely psychologize, projecting for instance that because president Kornbluth is a 63-year old Jewish woman from New York, she should feel X type of way about our demands, but because chancellor Nobles wrote something about decolonizing academic spaces, she should think Y.  

The truth is that the administrators are probably more keenly aware of current events in Palestine than they let on; the president is even rumored to have participated in a reading club for Rashid Khalidi’s book Hundred Year’s War on Palestine. However their personal feelings are mostly irrelevant to how they behave publicly because formal decision-making power on major university decisions is highly constrained, and the leadership selection mechanisms filter heavily for a certain type. If it weren’t Sally or Melissa or Richard Lester, it would be someone similar. As a UC Berkeley student recounted in his 1964 speech that electrified the Free Speech movement, “Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his Board of Directors?” 

From a bird’s eye view then, the most efficient mental model for the administrator – even if it’s not the most nuanced or flattering – is the unthinking careerist. Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) famously explored how evil can emerge as a property of bureaucratic structures, precisely because the bureaucracy attracts and creates the banal. A $500,000 salary along with a mortgage, kids, elder care, tightly constrained discretion, and the esprit d’corps of adult peers around you is quite the drug. To leave, you must overcome the seductive power of the story I can do more good here, on the inside. This was the same siren’s song I faced leaving my diplomatic position in the US State Department. As Edward Said wrote, these “habits of mind that induce avoidance” are especially corrosive when it comes to Palestine: 

You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so, to remain within the responsible mainstream. 

The more accentuated the division of labor or lack of shared decision-making between administrative units, the more intense this seduction. When a university treasurer or vice provost for international activities decides, for instance, that a divestment push is not worth the risk, the treasurer is only held responsible for that decision; what happens to the encampment is irrelevant to her. The treasurer then displaces the fate of the encampment on to, say, the chancellor and deans of student life. With the option of granting a concession foreclosed (the treasurer said it can’t be done) and the students defiant, the only way for the chancellor to restore law and order is to call the police. At the general university level, norms of trust in the admin make this decision easier, because the community will accept the admin’s version of events anyway. Consensus norms at the elite level favor the status quo default. 

So far, this characterization explains why administrators follow rules, dislike risks, and avoid stepping on each other’s toes. But why is divestment from the Israeli military a particular risk to MIT finances or prestige? The simple answer is that administrators are pushed by pro-Israel forces on the other side – big donors, alumni, trustees, and reactionary members of Congress. It’s not necessary that this pressure is explicitly articulated, only that it’s perceived; the billionaire hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman does not need to get on the phone to threaten Sally Kornbluth or tell the media exactly what he and his friends will do if MIT decides to divest. Key administrators and trustees simply need to have a dim awareness that donors with deep pockets will withdraw in outrage following a divestment decision. This vulnerability to donor pressure was magnified by a Republican-led overhaul of the university beginning in the 1970s, which brought the shareholder revolution into the heart of endowment management and wedded the university more tightly to an emergent form of neoliberal corporatism.  

Similarly, House Republicans do not need to threaten a Congressional subpoena for a hearing about campus anti-Semitism; the MIT president is already familiar with that experience. And although boycotting a foreign country is about as American as throwing barrels of British tea into Boston harbor, at least 37 U.S. states criminalize boycotts against Israel. There are also a few PIs at MIT who may believe that taking money from the Israeli apartheid state is their God-given constitutional right, and a few appointed judges who might agree. Do schools really want to drag themselves through costly court battles for the sake of their students and principles? Moreover, Israeli Ministry of Defense funding at MIT seems to be repackaged Foreign Military Financing grants originally provided to Israel by the U.S. military. By refusing the miniscule percent of research sponsorship by the IMOD, it’s conceivable that MIT administrators may anger the U.S. federal government and Pentagon, thereby jeopardizing a much larger share of campus research funding. 

Of course, I have yet to hear MIT administrators admit to any of this explicitly; it is not good PR to nakedly admit you put money over people. Instead, they cook up a useful fiction about academic freedom. The chancellor claims that the comparison between our divestment demand and MIT ending its collaborations with the Moscow-based Skolkovo is a bad analogy because Skoltech was an “institute-level programmatic commitment” while the IDF-sponsored grants today are “independently sought by laboratory heads.” But MIT’s financialrecords reveal many laboratory heads taking independent grants: in 2022 at least 26 PIs took funding from Skolkovo, representing 45 grants and nearly ten times the amount currently sponsored by the Israeli military. Following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, MIT admin unilaterally ended Skolkovo funding mid-stream without PI input and offered transitional funding. Similarly, in 2020 MIT ended lucrative Saudi Aramco research funding despite faculty opposition and publicly condemned the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. MIT even condemned the genocide in Darfur and pledged to divest in 2007. So MIT has taken moral positions before. Why not now? 

The difference between the Israeli and Russian-Saudi cases is not an administrative technicality. It’s political. In democracies with a constellation of political forces more sympathetic to Palestinian rights, colleges and pension funds are having no trouble finding the bolder position. Ireland, Spain, Belgium, and Norway shine here as states now divesting from Israeli apartheid; they have fewer counter-majoritarian checks and veto players, no pro-Israel lobby comparable to AIPAC, ALEC, and CUFI, and Catholic or secularized majorities not so easily duped by the notion that Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical eschatology. Does that mean we wait until U.S. politicians change? No. In the early 1980s, activists led the charge with Free South Africa, not elected officials. By 1984, 53 universities had partially divested from apartheid. Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act two years later, overriding Ronald Reagan’s veto.  

Yet in university officialdom, to the extent 'divestment' is considered in good faith at all, it becomes a question of applied ethics: ‘yes it's all horrible, but where do we draw the line? How do we create rules and procedures that automate this process?’ The bureaucracy, to make the divestment cause legible to itself, narrowly reformulates an act of costly political signaling into a stultifying discourse of internal ethics and institutional liability. Although MIT has such rules, like the criteria of its own Suri report it created after the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, it has yet to apply them to Israel. Viewed in this light, the admin are like medieval bishops in the Notre Dame cathedral debating whether it's theologically sound to let the prostitutes’ guild pay tithes for a stained-glass window. No mass politics. 

Skeptics are also easily hung up by narrow concerns: will an isolated divestment decision actually 'work' to reduce a complicit company's long-term share price or debilitate Israel's offensive capacity? If the answer is no (and it was generally no for South African apartheid and fossil fuels) then why bother? If students cannot prove that MIT research contributes directly to the current Israeli assault on Gaza, where is the complicity? – an argument made recently in The Tech. For others, it's not altogether clear why universities should ever refuse dirty money, so long as their own activities are socially good. “They would take money from the devil himself and be only too glad to get it out of his hands and into God’s,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in Major Barbara. Or the scientist tricks herself into believing that her research is morally neutral. “What I’m designing may one day be used to kill millions of people,” an MIT grad worker told a reporter in 1969. “I don’t care. That’s not my responsibility. I’m given an interesting technological problem and I get enjoyment out of solving it.” 

In the 1840s, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass encountered versions of these excuses in his own divestment campaign against the Free Church of Scotland. ‘Send Back the Money!’ of American slaveholders and ‘refuse fellowship with them’ he told the Scotts, carving the slogan into the heath of an extinct volcano overlooking Edinburgh. Douglass centered his critique of accepting slaveholder tithes not around abstract, moral puritanism or the purported material leverage that divestment would provide to people in bondage. Political theorist Emma Saunders-Hasting shows he argued that “the decision of a self-styled ‘Free’ church to accept donations from slaveholders gave a specious ‘respectability’ to those slaveholders and so to the slaveholding system.” Taking the blood-stained gold of the Virginia planter sent a message to slaves that the Scottish church cared little for their humanity. Similarly, MIT’s decision to take Israeli money sends a signal to Palestinians at MIT that we do not value their life.  

Dirty money also subverts the political judgments of institutions. In Douglass’ words, they “have stabbed the cause of abolition, and corrupted their own church.” Similarly, when MIT takes money from the Israelis or collaborates with an arms manufacturer, it degrades its own judgements, exposing itself to motivated reasoning and political influence. In the long-term, military patrons also shift campus research toward capital-intensive, belligerent applications. The world gives us endless technical and scientific problems to solve; some help ordinary people, others kill them. As Andrea Dworkin put it in her speech at MIT in 1975, there is a deep absurdity about men walking on the moon or satellites roving Mars while contraception technology remains criminally inadequate: “The pill is poisonous and the I.U.D is sadistic.”  

MIT has stood up to the Pentagon before. In 1966, under pressure from the anti-war movement, the chair of MIT’s mechanical engineering department Ascher Shapiro and his colleague Ronald Probstein decided to shift the research agenda of the Fluid Mechanics Laboratory to civilian technology. It was not easy. They had to rebuild the lab’s reputation and network of sponsors. But Shapiro left ballistics research to study the fluid mechanics of heart valves. Probstein investigated ways to better de-salinize sea water. Others in the lab took on smokestack design, nitric oxide emissions, and oil spills. By 1969, two-thirds of lab funding came from civilian sources, and half of graduates were entering civilian industry. In 1970, Shapiro had enough momentum to call for full divestment from the Pentagon across the entire MIT funding apparatus. We should build on that legacy. At MIT, our science should repair and affirm life, not create Orwellian dystopias, not serve fossil capital, and not aid and abet empire. 

Like Douglass, we in the divestment campaign for Palestine are much less concerned about outlining abstract funding ethics rules or fetishizing an artificial line between Good and Bad money, when the truth is that all economic value cycles through networks of exchange and production rooted deep down in the exploitation of labor and enclosure of the commons. Many of us feel that there is ultimately no ethical consumption under capitalism and no 'moral' state violence under empire. To be consistent about Israeli money would require us to demand MIT reject American military funding too – a much heavier lift, politically speaking.  

Zionists often use this point as a reductio argument, a ‘gotcha’ that supposes if you cannot meaningfully condemn all the human rights abuses in the world or win against the Pentagon, you should shut up about Israel. But the point of progressive politics is not to articulate the most morally or politically demanding position imaginable and then despair when institutions fail to capitulate. Nor is the point to succumb to the puritanical impulse to make politics about policing little radical clubs sealed off from the sins of the world. Instead we dedicate our lives to building coalitions and making inroads to state power. To build moral coalitions, we point to an ambitious, but conceivable line and say 'meet us there.' Once we're at that line, we move it again. This is one way to keep hope alive. Quoting Noam Chomsky, “We are faced with a kind of Pascal’s wager: assume the worst and it will surely arrive; commit oneself to the cause for freedom and justice, and its cause may be advanced.” 


A Path Forward 

The Palestinian national movement is often tarred by Zionists as a chauvinistic, violent, and illiberal cause, but the truth is it embodies the hopes of an old political liberalism: rule by the consent of the governed, separation of religion and state, popular sovereignty, and the fundamental injustice of all hereditary privileges – class, ethnic, or otherwise. Yet among the canards of a juvenile liberalism and of an impoverished activist state of mind, are that elite opinions on a polarized issue like Palestine are essentially given and to be respected, that power is a thing lying around somewhere in the Chancellor's office, and that people upset about a policy should go to those most responsible (Joe Biden, Congress?) and either vote or protest outside a government building like atomized, embittered loners. As if you should not dare disrupt anyone else’s day. 

In contrast, the pragmatic organizer understands Stuart Hall's wisdom that “politics does not reflect majorities. It constructs them.” Power is not seized; it is forged. You build momentum during your long march through the institutions. You establish a web of mutual aid and solidaristic companionship, which helps you in the next front of struggle. You slay a Goliath like the US government in part by conquering the lower giants, the universities, where you have more leverage. Then you set the giants on their own collision course with Goliath. Giants of course do not give up easily; that is why we arrived at the correct intuition that polite emails and clever arguments will not bring divestment to MIT. It's only in conjunction with disruptive, at times divisive protest in the arena of mass politics where we may hope to foment what Antonio Gramsci called an “organic crisis” that shatters the legitimacy of an institution. MIT only came to the negotiating table after we built an encampment on Kresge Lawn, not before. 

This is the core wisdom of our civil disobedience. By discretizing the moral field and drawing a line in the sand, we demarcated who MIT can serve – its students or its donors – and forced it to choose. We subjected its lofty values of critical thinking, free speech, and scientific ethics to a stress test and made MIT show its true face, even if it meant inflicting violence on our persons. That true face, it turns out, is ugly and cruel and shot through with hypocrisy. But their violence also showed our faces; it showed our love and commitment to Palestinian freedom. Our menschlichkeit and samoud. With arrests and suspensions, we sent a costly message to the people of Gaza and to ourselves about what it means to choose resistance in a time of grief. To choose love in a time of war.  

That love keeps you sane in a sick society. “This is something people still don’t know or understand” said Marek Edelman, the anti-Zionist and Bundist Jew who helped lead the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis. “To be with someone was the only way to survive in the Ghetto… if you are capable of love, if you love [someone], you will remain a normal person even in the most horrid circumstances.” Thus the point of the SAGE encampment wasn’t just to score points against the admin, but to be with each other in love. When we say ‘we are all Palestinian,’ we place ourselves in a moral lifeworld or lebenswelt of shared struggle, moved by the same solidarity that compelled Parisian student revolutionaries in May 1968 to cry Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands

The task before us then is to swell the ranks and continue morally isolating the state of Israel. As the Danish resistance leader Frode Jakobsen reflected, nonviolent civil resistance and sabotage are ultimately about “the battle for our people’s soul.” For Jakobsen, the problem was not how is one to injure the Germans the most? But how is one to draw the great mass of people into the fight? And as Rashid Khalidi has pointed out many successful national liberation movements – in Vietnam, Ireland, South Africa, and Algeria – were won not on the battlefield of the colony but in the metropole, either by fatiguing it or winning over public opinion.  

Viewed in this light, MIT’s repression is a gift. The SAGE immersed us in a densifying network of interpersonal ties. In a fatal error, the admin’s violence then radicalized that network with the hammer of persecution. But hammer blows will only shatter their glass and harden our steel, exposing the cracks of their own moral bankrupt system. At every opportunity, we will ram our crowbars into those cracks and heave. As Eqbal Ahmed once said, “the primary task of revolutionary struggle is to achieve the moral isolation of the adversary in its own eyes and in the eyes of the world.”  

For Ahmed, the fundamental moral contradiction of the state of Israel is that it claims to be a “symbol of the suffering of humanity” forged at the expense of another people innocent of guilt. Israel is seen in the West as the victory of the Jews over Auschwitz, the baptismal Staatsraison of the German federal republic, the fulfillment of Christian Biblical prophecy, and the bulwark of civilization in a barbaric Orient. Our task is to sharpen that contradiction and expose the state’s ideology as a pack of lies. In Ahmed’s words, we must “reverse the symbols” of Exodus and the Holocaust by showing Palestinians for who they are: human beings. A people worthy of love, sacrifice, and equality. Generations of Palestinian poets and Anti-Zionist Jews have observed this bitter irony before, that Palestinians live out their own peculiar Jewish history, wandering the desert in their own exodus, fighting like besieged zealots in their own Masada, and defying another national ideology premised on blood and soil.  

The other task is harder: to keep the barriers to enemy defection low. I was mad as hell when I first got banned. In my anger, I saw MIT as a company dictatorship, the bitch of the Pentagon – one that makes up rules and imposes them on who it wants so it can keep exploiting scientific labor to do the research that kills children. I saw in MIT a massive, untaxed hedge fund dedicated to laundering the wealth of oligarchs and churning out credentials for the rich. I considered leaving. In church, I prayed that this whole empire of blood-stained cotton and iron collapses under the weight of its own contradictions. 

I am still mad as hell. But this kind of uncompromising rebuke to burn it all down does not convince people on the fence. Jeremiads can scare people. Every successful revolution I know of – in France, Russia, Tunisia, Egypt, and Portugal – required a critical mass of regime forces to defect. Similarly, we must welcome even the last guest to the table of the liberatory feast. Forgiveness is also part of our humanity. As Malcom X chided, “Don't be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn't do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn't know what you know today.” Frederick Douglass in his divestment campaign in Scotland was a master of this invitation, quoting not only the Prophet Isaiah’s rebuke but also his call to repent: 

     16 Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;  

     17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.  

     18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. 

My fervent hope is that when apartheid ends, when the intifada ends, when Palestinian blood flowing on that torn soil is replaced with the milk and honey of Mosaic scripture, when Handala’s exiles return to the ruins of Lifta or al-Bassa, and when Ghassan Kanafani’s ‘land of the sad orange’ is made joyful, then we can accept Isaiah’s invitation to come and ‘reason together.’ Then we can stop thirsting at the well of Fadwa Tuqan’s bitter sorrow. Then we can return home. Or like Moses and MLK, we can at least ascend the mountaintop and glimpse it before we die – that promised earth between the river and the sea where the righteous dwell and lions lay down with lambs. 

Richard Solomon is a PhD student in the MIT Department of Political Science where he studies Middle East politics and the political economy of trade. He is a member of the MIT Coalition for Palestine and the MIT Grads for Palestine. Before MIT, he worked as a consular diplomat with the U.S. Department of State in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The views expressed above are his alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. government or any MIT affiliated organization.