Students at Brown Just Finished a Hunger Strike Against Israel

Earlier this month, 19 Brown University students completed an eight-day hunger strike demanding the school divest from companies profiting from human rights abuses in Palestine. We talked to three of the hunger strikers about the protest.

Brown University students take part in a hunger strike for Palestine, February 7, 2024. (David L. Ryan / the Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Interview by
Hadas Thier

Earlier this month, nineteen Brown University students wrapped up an eight-day hunger strike to demand that university trustees hear their proposal to divest the endowment from companies that profit from human rights abuses in Palestine, as identified in a 2020 report by the university’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Practices (ACCRIP).

Hundreds of students have organized peaceful protests and actions at Brown since October 7, including two occupations of University Hall, leading to the arrest of over sixty students. Hundreds also participated in solidarity actions throughout the week, including a 250-plus solidarity fast on the final day of the strike. The Brown Corporation, the university’s governing body, met on February 8 and 9 but refused to discuss the proposal.

Jacobin spoke with three of the hunger strikers to discuss their experience during the strike, and talk about what is next for the growing movement at Brown: Kaliko Kalāhiki, a senior studying critical Native American and indigenous studies; Ariela Rosenzweig, a senior studying religion and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine who was arrested along with nineteen other members of Jews for Ceasefire Now on November 8 during a sit-in at University Hall; and Niyanta Nepal, a junior studying biomedical engineering and education studies who leads the activist coalition on campus.

Hadas Thier

What was your experience over the eight days on hunger strike?

Kaliko Kalāhiki

I was very energized by all the participants showing up and the organizers putting on different events and teach-ins and programming throughout the week. At multiple points during the week, I found I wasn’t experiencing hunger anymore. I was channeling that energy from everyone else. I see us as an organism moving together, and the momentum that we’re all moving with carried me through.

There were a lot of moments of feeling the pangs of hunger, and the biggest challenge was understanding the physical limitations that came with each successive day. I needed to move a lot slower. I had a hard time carrying even my backpack to the campus center. I had to do a lot of self-checks with my body and be very cognizant of conserving my energy. I depended on my own spirituality and on the people around me to get me through.

Ariela Rosenzweig

I felt a lot in my body: I felt numbness in my hands, and a good amount of pain when I moved. But every time I felt a pang of negative sensation and pain, hunger, or even feeling my emotions out of whack, I was reminded of the fact that even though I felt bad, I still was able to sit in my university and have clean water. I had ten people monitoring me to make sure that I drank my allotted liters of water every day.

What we experienced during the strike is nothing close to what happens in Gaza every day. To be able to do this within the confines of my university, and to do this knowing that in Gaza there are no more universities, and no one there is making a choice about whether or not they suffer through the famine — that grounded me.

Niyanta Nepal

What grounded me a lot was being in community with the nineteen other hunger strikers, some of whom had Palestinian narratives that they were sharing with us about their struggle and what they’ve seen. It was amazing to see two, three, four hundred people coming in and out of the campus center every day, engaging with us. People were coming to this movement with whatever they could bring, whether that be art, whether that be teaching, whether that would be faculty giving a lecture or holding a film screening.

Ariela Rosenzweig

Nour, our Palestinian coleader and fellow hunger striker, wasn’t able to join this conversation today, but this is a Palestinian and Jewish coled movement. I think that’s one of the things that made this action and that make this movement beautiful and special.

Ariela Rosenzweig speaking at the protest. (Courtesy of Talia LeVine)
Hadas Thier

I was struck by the images and footage that I saw on social media, at how robust the broader movement engagement was during the course of the strike. What did that look like?

Ariela Rosenzweig

Being in the campus center felt like living in a little beehive. We have this room called Leung Gallery, which has two floors with a balcony, and then a bottom floor. We would walk up to the third floor every day and look down from the balcony and see three hundred people splayed out.

We would come to the campus center at 8:00 a.m. to get our vitals taken. Every day we would start with morning announcements, and we would share updates from Palestine about what had happened in the last day. Then we’d lay out the schedule for the day, which usually included two to three teach-ins, some led by professors, others led by students or student groups.

We had constant art-making, screen printing, and people painting signs. I now have a massive collection of T-shirts that say “Divest Now!” And we have buttons and pins. There were papier-mâché projects. People made one flag to represent every ten lives lost since October 7, and we displayed them on the main green. We had the Spotify playlist from the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] movement playing.

Brown students holding a banner at the hunger strike. (Courtesy of Alicia Joo)

On most days we also had a public-facing rally or die-in. And we had Koran readings every day. Every minute that someone came into our space at the campus center, they were immediately pointed toward activity.

We also really developed our ideas. Everyone has come away from the past week with a much more robust understanding of the mechanics of divestment and the ability to refute the university’s talking points, which are ultimately just: “You can’t understand economics because you are a student, and you’re very silly if you think this is possible.”

But we know that it’s actually pretty simple, and it’s completely plausible. That was important to work through together.

Niyanta Nepal

We had friends, community members, professors coming to meet with us hunger strikers. Among students and faculty, I felt a collective sense of understanding between the people that were in that space.

But the administration essentially pathologized us and told us to go to mental health services, because we must have been crazy if we were willing to do something like this. The administration also came at us with a lot of nitpicky rules and regulations throughout the week to try to shut us down.

Every single time it came down hard on something, though, the movement grew by another ten or twenty people who supported us and had our backs. Even though the administration’s response was frustrating, it contributed to a collective sense of growth and power.

Kaliko Kalāhiki

One of the most impactful visits during the strike was from the mom of Hisham Awartani [a Palestinian college student who was shot and paralyzed in Burlington, Vermont, in November 2023] and their family coming to visit us one morning. We had a two-hour circle, where we all talked about our experiences and why we’re coming to this action, and we heard the support that Hisham’s family wanted to give us.

It was a pivotal moment for us. It was on day two or three of the strike, and people were starting to feel the hunger and get hangry. But that conversation just reinvigorated our cause and recentered all of us on why we’re doing this.

Ariela also talked about the rallies we had every day. Each one had a different purpose. We would hear from different organizations, and one or two of us strikers would talk to the crowd. I think it was powerful for the larger movement to hear our voices throughout.

Hadas Thier

How did the hunger strike fit in with the broader movement-building going on around campus?

Niyanta Nepal

This movement has been going on this campus for over ten years now. October 7 was a very pivotal date. But we had a lot of the base built already, with the 2020 ACCRIP report and with student referenda that have been passed over the years.

This hunger strike came after a lot of organizing. Last semester, we had sixty-one students who were arrested, and there was education that was continuously going on hand in hand with all of those actions.

During the strike, a lot of people made it so that you could not be on this campus and not be talking about this. You could not exist at Brown without confronting our university’s complicity in what’s happening in Gaza. It forced people to engage in ways that hopefully they hadn’t before. Even if you had been introduced to the topic, it helped you get a more in-depth understanding of the technicalities of divestment and to become critical thinkers about what’s going on.

Students engaging in a die-in at Brown University in solidarity with Palestinians. (Courtesy of Talia LeVine)

When the Brown Corporation met on Thursday and Friday, it could not exist without hearing us. We were showing up in the hundreds to each of their meetings. Everyone felt like we have a vested interest in this, and that we have the power to demand that our university listen to us. That kind of personal accountability developed a lot over the course of the hunger strike.

Ariela Rosenzweig

Hunger strikes can be isolating or individualistic, and that was something that I think we all felt nervous about going into it. But we’ve consciously used this tactic for movement-building. We knew that we were not only trying to build community and make connections in this moment on campus, but that we were also hoping to draw connections to our campus history and to world history regarding other atrocities we’ve witnessed.

Divestment is a tool that universities and countries can use to put civil-society pressure and eventually state pressure on bad actors. We started our hunger strike as part of the lineage of student hunger strikes for divestment from apartheid South Africa. And tactically it made sense to us — we’ve done rallies and sit-ins, and the administration didn’t listen. We know we need to keep pushing, and we know that we’re not the first to do so in this way.

Niyanta Nepal

I’ve done a lot of organizing around educational equity. But I can’t forget that there are no universities left standing in Gaza. I can’t forget the fact that students are learning to read from pamphlets falling out of planes, telling them to run. You can’t forget what these children are going through. And you can’t in good conscience advocate for educational equity on this campus without connecting it to what’s going on in Palestine.

Hadas Thier

Your demand was for the Brown Corporation to discuss the divestment proposal during its meeting. What do you make of its refusal to even take up the question, and where do you go from here?

Ariela Rosenzweig

It doesn’t seem like a smart decision to not just hear us and have it be done with. It’s surprising that this is what they decided on. But I think that the reason it’s so difficult for the administration to agree to hear us out is that it knows this would become a watershed moment.

It’s also quintessential Palestine exceptionalism. There is no other situation in which there would be this level of student support for the university to consider a proposal, and it would still repeatedly say no — except for on the issue of Palestine. It’s high stakes for the university, just like we’ve seen on a national level. They’re very committed to making sure that there is no movement. It’s unreasonable. It’s illiberal.

Niyanta Nepal

It was extremely disheartening during the days of the corporation meeting, to have them eating in front of us and going about their business, with no regard to the fact that there were nineteen students willing to put their lives on hold, and that 2,300 students had signed a petition asking them to hear us out. They couldn’t take an hour of their time to acknowledge the fact that more than twenty-nine thousand Palestinians have died as a result of Israel’s assault.

I also know that it’s only a matter of time before the corporation has to grapple with this decision. If you look at anything that has ever happened at Brown University — which it later takes credit for — it has always been a product of students’ collective action.

Kaliko Kalāhiki speaking at the protest. (Courtesy of Talia LeVine)
Kaliko Kalāhiki

I am hopeful that this is just a seed that will continue to grow. Right now at Brown, we’re in a moment of recovering and regrouping. Other universities have the ability and capacity to continue the movement. This is not just about Brown; it’s national and international across campuses.

Hadas Thier

How do you see the divestment movement at Brown in relation to the broader national movement?

Ariela Rosenzweig

The administration considers us silly for our insistence on divestment. But we know that with South Africa — even though that was forty years ago, and it’s not the same situation — civil-society pressure in the form of divestment made a big impact.

The significant symbolic weight of a university like Brown declaring that we find this to be morally reprehensible is something that we believe could help change the world. Michigan State University was the first to divest from South Africa, and then lots of universities in the country followed, until the US government finally passed the Anti-Apartheid Act.

So we see our fight for divestment on campus, not as separate from pressure that we are also putting on our elected officials, but as a part of it. Our theory of change is about using our positions, and Brown’s ability to use its position, in order to affect a material withdrawal of support from violence in Palestine.