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Student expression on campus: SJP hosts rally for Palestine


Photo: Students on Mellby Lawn gather in support for Palestine. Megan Lu/The Olaf Messenger

“Oles can, Oles will, Oles will divest the Hill” was chanted by several hundred students protesting in support of Palestine outside of Tomson Hall, home to St. Olaf College administration. At 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, April 30, St. Olaf’s recently-created chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) held a rally demanding for the College to divest from Oracle, an openly pro-Israel company that the College utilizes as the new time entry system for student workers.

Starting in the Buntrock Commons Plaza, SJP members held handmade signs with statements such as “Um Nah Nah to Genocide,” “My tuition should not fund genocide,” and “Oracle is not the future.” They also sold cloth badges drawn with markers that read “Free Palestine” with the Palestinian flag for people to wear for a dollar minimum. Proceeds made from the cloth badges will go to donation pages that are sending aid to people in Gaza.

Some wearing keffiyehs and colors of the Palestinian flag, students marched through Buntrock Commons to the steps of Boe Chapel, Tomson Hall, and ended on the Mellby Lawn. At each stop, speakers were brought forward to share their sentiments on the ongoing war in Gaza.

“I am terrified of the culture here at St. Olaf,” Ayane Jarso ’27 said at the start of the rally. “[Of] the culture of liberalism that allows us to learn about South African apartheid in class, learn about protesting, learn about genocides throughout history, and atrocities that have happened all throughout the world, but doesn’t allow us to protest these things while they are happening now.”

Led by three students holding a large “Freedom for Palestine” banner, the rally walked through Buntrock Commons, continuing their chants of “Free free Palestine.” They also chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a controversial phrase that some groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, view as hate speech because it has been used by organizations who support the violent destruction of Israel.

The group attracted lots of attention as community members paused to take photos and videos. By the time the rally congregated at their second location, the steps of Boe Chapel, there were more than a hundred students in attendance.

On these steps, Kate Hill ’27 said, “I condemn using the grief of my people as a justification for genocide.”

Winwin Suryani ’25 followed and spoke on the power of student movements, highlighting campus advocacy during the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Viet Nam War movement of the 1970s.

When the rally arrived outside Tomson Hall, the crowd spanned the length of the building, reaching over three hundred attendees. Here, chants of “Admin, admin, you can’t hide, you’re complicit in genocide” and “Admin, admin, what do you say? How many kids have you killed today?” began.

Former St. Olaf Professor Jonathan Hill spoke to the crowd of students about past Ole activism from his time on the Hill, such as the occupation of the former administration building, located where the Center for Art and Dance now stands, during the anti-Viet Nam War movement.

“You are a part of a student tradition,” Hill said. “Oles can, Oles will, Oles have in the past, and Oles will in the future.”

In an interview with The Olaf Messenger, Hill said, “I thought I had to come up and see this and renew my faith, though it didn’t need renewing, in the pressure of the St. Olaf student body and in their determination to act, not merely to talk.” The rally affirmed his belief in the spirit of the St. Olaf student body. “Yes, we’re here to train your mind, but never close your heart to what’s going on in the rest of the world. I find this completely inspiring.”

Before walking into Tomson Hall to meet with President Susan Rundell Singer, a member of SJP reiterated the goal of the rally while holding three yellow envelopes in their hand: “We as students call administration and [the] Board of Regents to end complicity.”

The envelopes contained letters to Rundell Singer, the Board of Regents, and the greater St. Olaf administration to divest from Israel. SJP announced that the rally was to remain silent when entering Tomson to adhere to St. Olaf’s rules of “non-obstructive demonstrations” as stated in the Faculty Handbook. This was met with some disagreement by crowd members.

Upon arrival at Rundell Singer’s office, her secretary told the protestors that the President could not meet with them as she was in an important meeting, but the secretary took the letters. Outraged, chants of “divest or we’ll be back” broke out as the group walked outside to regroup on Mellby Lawn, despite the prior statements from SJP outside of Tomson Hall to remain silent upon entry.

At the close, SJP invited students to continue to stay on Mellby Lawn to foster community and further support for Palestine. A few minutes later, music began and students gathered to dance a traditional Palestinian dance.

At 4:15 p.m, Rundell Singer sent an email statement to the student body voicing her “deep concern for the increasing loss of life of Palestinians and Israelis” and encouraging “free discussion, inquiry, and expression — including peaceful demonstration.”

When asked about the President’s email, SJP Co-Director Faten Abu Al Ardat ’27 called it “disappointing,” saying that SJP went back later that afternoon to meet with Rundell Singer, but was turned down again as she was still in a meeting. However, SJP plans on meeting with President Rundell Singer again next week.

At 9:30 a.m, on Wednesday, May 1, Chief Financial Aid Officer Mike Berthelsen sent an email statement explaining that “less than 0.5 percent” of the College’s investments are “tied to Israeli companies” and that “none of these investments are directly held by St. Olaf.”

In this email, he also addressed St. Olaf’s relationship with Oracle, stating that “the business strategy or public statements from Oracle do not represent the viewpoints of St. Olaf College.” Due to the College’s contract with the business and the cost it took to make “such major system changes, the College does not have any feasible or affordable alternative.” Therefore, St. Olaf College will continue to use Oracle for ​​its job and time system operations for the foreseeable future.

“I hope people also continue to come and [not] just show up this one time because change will not happen now,” Al Ardat said in an interview. “It takes time and we need more people to do so. It has to be a collective thing for the College to do so.”

In protests, there is a power that comes with being part of a community. With encampments and protests growing across college campuses, collegiate voices have become louder in the discussion of the ongoing conflict in Gaza.