Shari Arison’s winter commencement address protested

SAIA affiliated students protest at the JC North Plaza (photo by Alex Perry)
SAIA affiliated students protest at the JC North Plaza (photo by Alex Perry)

Around 75 graduates and audience members walked out during the winter commencement protesting the ceremony’s commencement speaker, Israeli-American billionaire-businesswoman Shari Arison.

The student group that organized the walkout, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, listed its grievances against Arison and her business conglomerate in an open letter coauthored by recent graduate Tareq Radi (’13) and Professor Craig Willse.  The letter criticized the university for honoring Arison “given the central role the Arison Group plays in Israel’s illegal occupation and apartheid state.”

Arison was invited to the university to receive the Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. According to Mason President Ángel Cabrera, the doctorate is one of the highest honors the university can offer.

“We want to have people who are both aligned in their thinking and in their actions with the university, but also people who believe in us and who are supporting us,” Cabrera said.

Arison donated $3 million to the university’s New Century College for a professorship that is modeled along the values that she advocates, according to Cabrera. He said that Mason shares many of the values her companies espouse, such as sustainability.  

“This is a way to welcome her, to thank her for believing in what we do, and also to develop additional connections with her and her team,”  Cabrera said.

According to SAIA, the Arison Group includes four different companies, “three of which are directly involved in the illegal occupation and colonization of Palestine.” Radi and Willse claim that the Arison Group’s Bank Hapaolim is a key player in financing the settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,  the Jerusalem Light Rail which connects Jerusalem to the settlements,  the Prawer Plan in displacing up to 70,000 Bedouins and in discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

“We hoped that the administration would take the information we provided as an opportunity to rethink their mistake and take a course of action that was in keeping with the values we profess to uphold,” Willse said. “Our only direct request was around the walkout, which was a huge success. We educated our community about some of the realities of life in Israel and the Occupied Territories, challenging the misinformation of mainstream media and Shari Arison.”

In the days leading up to the winter commencement, SAIA embarked on a campaign to raise awareness of her alleged unethical business practices, including a “mock apartheid wall,” posters listing their grievances against Arison, and a poster captioned “Who Will Mason Honor Next?” depicting Arison surrounded by the likes of Benito Mussolini, David Petraeus and George Zimmerman. However, the campaign and the protest were viewed critically by some students.

“Jewish students on campus are disgusted with the way SAIA portrayed Arison,” said Ian Campbell, Vice President of the Israel Student Association. “They claim it had to do with her practices as a businesswoman, but we feel that had Arison been of another nationality with links to other countries, SAIA wouldn't have spoken a word against her.”

Cabrera defended his decision to invite Arison to the winter commencement in a post on his blog entitled “Diversity Is Our Strength.” In the post, he writes that while he understands that Arison’s Israeli nationality has upset some students and faculty, “the world is made better by deep, courageous and compassionate engagement with all peoples.” However, Radi was critical of this defense.

“The boycott, disinvestment, sanction movement and SAIA resist all forms of discrimination,” Radi said. “Her nationality was not mentioned once in any of our objections to her honoring…Our letter clearly identifies her unethical actions. There is a clear distinction between protesting a nationality and the profiteering of the dispossession and illegal displacement of an indigenous population.”

SAIA was granted permission from university administration to carry out the protest in a way that wouldn’t disturb the proceedings of the commencement.

According to Radi, a major concern among the protesters was for the university to provide accommodation for audience members and graduates who chose to walk out.

“Expecting my Nakba-surviving grandparents to wander the halls of the Patriot Center while a benefactor of their dispossession was honored was unacceptable,” Radi said. 

Cabrera emphasized that Mason was about diversity of thought and ideas and that difference of opinion was to be expected from a university with such a large number of students. However, he expressed personal disapproval with SAIA’s decision to protest.

“From my perspective, I would have preferred that no one walked. Here we have a lady who’s been incredibly kind and generous to the university; we’ve invited her to our campus to say thank you, and hopefully to develop the relationship further, so even if there are 10 students walking out, it’s embarrassing,” Cabrera said. “But the speaker understood; she was very gracious about it, and I didn’t receive any complaints.”

The commencement programs included an insert expressing the university’s desire to honor diversity of opinion and freedom of speech, but requested that those wishing to express themselves do so in a respectful, undisruptive manner.

“The walkout enriched the experience of the commencement, taking a billionaire’s PR stunt and turning it into an educational moment and an opportunity to build meaningful solidarity with our campus communities,” Willse said.

When asked about the concerns listed by Willse and Radi questioning the ethics of the speaker’s business practices, Cabrera responded by defending Arison’s businesses and bringing to light the absence of controversy over her businesses in her home country.

“She has absolutely no influence whatsoever on the positions of the government of Israel; she just runs a business,” Cabrera said. “That’s all she does, and she does it with great values. She’s not targeted by protests in her own country, not even by Arab Palestinians.”

SAIA also raised concerns about the influence that private donors to the university such as Arison would exert, as well as any effect that Arison’s donation may have on the cultural and ideological diversity of the university. However, Cabrera quelled this idea.

“You cannot buy this university,” Cabrera said. “None of our donors can tell our professors what to do or what to write. It is central to us that our faculty are totally independent to do what they do. Donors have no influence whatsoever.” 

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