News Wheaton

Students Protest for Palestine During Honors Convocation

Shortly before Honors Convocation at 5PM, about a dozen students gathered in the Dimple, Some wore red, green, and white (the colors of the Palestinian flag), and held signs that read “Free Gaza,” “Ceasefire Now,” “Stand Against Genocide,” and “Divest Now.” One person began roller-blading around the Dimple, waving a Palestinian flag.

Their numbers quickly grew to around 40 protestors. As convocation began, seniors in their caps and gowns, as well as faculty wearing their regalia, stood directly across from the protestors, who chanted at those waiting to enter the chapel. Some seniors left the line to join the protest, others shouted words of encouragement towards the protesters, while others stood silent. Several faculty members stood in solidarity with the students protesting before proceeding in. 

The protest continued for the entire convocation ceremony, and the barbecue afterwards, which was not widely attended. Chanting could be heard from inside the chapel for the duration of the ceremony. One senior who was inside the chapel for the entire Convocation and did not wish to be identified, described the atmosphere as “intensely awkward and tense at points” and said they felt as if the seniors being honored were the ones being protested, rather than faculty and administrators.

Zoey Krueger ‘24, was planning on attending Honors Convocation when she heard about the protest, a few hours before the ceremony. Krueger went to the Dimple wearing her gown but decided that it was more important to join the protest. 

“It is important that we hold the school accountable for taking donations from people who are actively funding war crimes and violence. And I feel like this is a good place to protest because there is a lot of faculty. Also as a senior, I think this is more important than Honors Convocation.” Krueger said.

One of the main demands of students across the country, and at Wheaton, is for their universities to divest from companies with connections to Israel, and, as Krueger said, to cut ties with organizations that directly support Israel. According to the 2022-2023 endowment report, Wheaton has 57.8% in equity and 8.1% in private investments of its $256.2 million dollar endowment. However, Wheaton does not publish a list of institutional investments and did not respond to The Wheaton Wire’s request for one before the time of publication. 

The calls for divestment from students were complicated by the fact that students did not know what companies Wheaton should divest from, as the school has not made the information is not public. Organizers said that they did not reach out to the administration regarding institutional investments. 

Most people interviewed at the protest cited the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation and Mars Inc. as companies they would like to see Wheaton cut ties with. Both organizations are major donors to the college, but it is not clear if Wheaton has given or invested any money in either. 

Mars Inc. is partnered with Jerusalem Venture Partners to invest in Israeli start-ups and companies, according to a press release from the company. The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, which has received criticism from students in the past, is the largest donor of Informing America Foundation, which in turn is the largest donor of Accuracy in Media, the organization responsible for the infamous “Harvard Doxxing Truck,” according to the left-leaning news organizations The New Republic and The Guardian. The truck displayed the names and photos of anti-Zionist Harvard students and labeled them as “Harvard’s Leading Anti-Semites.”

The group organizing the protest was also responsible for a campaign which took place in residence halls earlier this semester, where organizers went around residence halls and asked students if they wanted to hang up a picture of the Palestinian flag in their window. 

Petra Zadroga ‘25 helped organize the protest, and also brought up Wheaton’s ties to Mars Inc. when asked how Wheaton specifically is funding genocide, they responded “Mars operates with JVP (Jerusalem Venture Partners), so they can continue to own businesses headquartered on Palestinian land, in line with Israeli laws. It’s a kind of corporate hegemonic notion of genocide.” 

Luka Akiba-Hajim ‘26 also helped organize the protest, and said that the group chose to protest at Honors Convocation because “it was as good of a time as any, especially with the amount of people here.” They said their demands were for Wheaton to disclose where their investments are going and divest from any company affiliated with Israel. 

Akiba-Hajim and another organizer, who does not wish to be identified, said they considered doing an encampment, which other schools have, but that was not feasible due to the amount of students involved in organizing this rally. Still, it was important to Akiba-Hajim that they show their support for the Palestinian cause in some way. 

“I’m very Jewish. I’m a product of the State of Israel. I would not exist if my saba and satva, [the Hebrew word for grandparents] did not meet in Tel Aviv. I wanted to be here because, as a Jew, this is a conflict really near and dear to my heart. I just have to say ‘this is not in my name’ that what Israel is doing, what Netanyahu is doing—it’s not what Judaism is about. It’s not what our people are about. We cannot continue allowing the genocide in our name.” Akiba-Hajim said. 

Ezra Golub ‘26 held a sign that read “Divest Now!” with a picture of the Raytheon symbol crossed out. He said that “I have a crossed out Raytheon symbol because Wheaton needs to cut all of our ties with Raytheon, they’re a military company that is making and profiting from the bombs that are killing children in Gaza.” His sign called out Diana Davis Spencer, and Keith Peden, a former executive at Raytheon and Wheaton trustee board member. Raytheon is one of the largest military contractors in the United States. “We have too close ties that are actively profiting from the genocide in Gaza. I would like to see that change.” Golub said.

Davis Spencer is a lifetime member on Wheaton’s board of trustees. Peden was a trustee from 2007-2022. Last year, he received an honorary degree from Wheaton.

Standing near the chapel as students protested was Leonard Breton, the director of the Center for Social Justice and Community Impact. Breton said that he was proud of the students for exercising their First Amendment rights, but “also wants them to do so in the safest and most educated manner possible. I know that today this sort of goes against what Wheaton’s policies are.” 

The protest was in violation of the school’s free expression policy, which states that students must receive approval before “planning to host a speech, public assembly, or demonstration.” (The Dean of Students office declined to comment on this violation, as of now no students have received punishment for their participation).

When asked if a culture of free discussion regarding Israel/Palestine issues existed on campus, Breton responded that “as an educator, particularly in social justice, I want to have a more honest conversation about what’s going on. And I think we’ve tried in the Base (a name for the Center of Social Justice and Community Engagement) to do that.”

“We tried to get faculty involved. We tried to get students involved last semester. And it kind of got mixed reactions. You know, like some people appreciate it.” Breton said. “Some thought we still weren’t addressing the issue head on, but how do you address an issue like this that has such a deep history without upsetting someone? And we’re trying to find a way to have a conversation without upsetting someone or without offending someone? And I don’t know how to answer the question. It’s hard.” 

Also standing near him was Professors Kate Mason and Sabrina Speights. They were planning to go to Honors Convocation, but saw the students outside protesting and decided not to go in. 

“I had planned to go to the Honors Convocation, but when I got out [of class] and saw how it was looking, I thought ‘I see a lot of my students there and I want to sort of witness.’ I’m not in the protest, but I also want to make sure that everybody’s safe and gets to say what they need to say.” Professor Mason said.

Professors Brenda Wyss and Fatima Jebari attended convocation, but stood with students before and after the ceremony.

“I was wondering why [a protest] hadn’t happened before… I’m happy to see students speaking up.” Professor Wyss said. “It’s their right to speak and express their own mind,” Professor Jebari added. “Freedom of speech around Palestinian issues is more controlled and less free.” 

“People are really quick to interpret criticism of Israel’s actions as anti-semitism, and to me, they are not the same,” added Professor Wyss. Both said they did not feel silenced for talking about Palestinian issues.

“I support what the students are doing, and I wanted them to know,” said Professor Wyss when asked why she stood with protestors. “I would like to see an end to what’s happening in Gaza…student movements have made so much important change throughout history and I love to see Wheaton students being a part of it.”

Celines Ramirez and Antonio Polini, both ‘24, attended Honors Convocation and then went outside and joined the protest. They had no issue with the protest taking place during the ceremony. 

“I thought it was a perfect time…Even though I got an award, it did not affect the procession at all, or the ceremony at all. It did not affect anyone in there really, to be honest, besides the students out here protesting.” Ramirez said. “I thought it was the perfect time because this is literally all of the staff and all of the people that we need to be talking to, here in one place.”

Polini agrees.“There’s some singers that went up they had like free Palestine stuff on their [clothes]. So I thought that was cool that they kind of could protests in there, you know, kind of secretly. And then we came out and joined up with the protest group.” He said.

Other students felt that while they supported the cause, they felt that protesting in front of Honors Convocation was the wrong time and place.

“I agree with the pro-Palestinian activism. I do not think this is the move, however.” Said one student watching the protest from a bench in the Dimple (the student declined to give his name and class year). “I feel like there is no impact to be made on the Wheaton College campus. I also do not feel that protesting the Honors Convocation itself is very effective at getting the message across. Apart of me thinks that it’s like these people feel like they are powerless to stop genocide happening and so this is what they decide to do.”

At the time this article was written, 2,300 people have been arrested in pro-Palestine demonstrations in the United States, mostly students and some faculty. The most publicized protest, which took place at Columbia University, ended last week with the New York Police Department raiding a building occupied by student activists. Activists had overtaken Hamilton Hall and renamed it Hind’s Hall, after a 6-year old Palestinian girl named Hind Rajab. 

Hind was from Gaza City, and while fleeing from her neighborhood with her family, an Israeli army tank shot at their vehicle. Her aunt, uncle, and four cousins were killed immediately by the Israeli army. Hind’s cousin called the Palestinian Red Crescent Society pleading for help, the call ended in gunshots and silence. Hind then got on the phone and begged the dispatchers to rescue her while she remained trapped inside the family with her dead family members. 

The PRCS sent an ambulance that never reached Hind. Her body was found 12 days later, alongside the bodies of two paramedics that had been sent to save her. Shell fragments of an American-made projectile were also found at the site of the bombed Red Crescent ambulance. The Washington Post and Al-Jazeera verified that Israeli tanks surrounded the car at the time, and The Guardian reports that “she appeared to have died from gunfire and shelling.”

As of last week, Palestinian health authorities report that they are no longer able to count their dead because the hospitals are barely functioning. The most recent estimates put the death toll in Gaza at 34,000.