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Pro-Palestine protesters want universities to divest from Israel. That can't happen in Ohio

Protesters gather at Mirror Lake on Ohio State University's campus demanding the university disinvest from funding sources related to Israel and their war in Gaza against Hamas on Tuesday, April 24, 2024.
George Shillcock
Protesters gather at Mirror Lake on Ohio State University's campus demanding the university disinvest from funding sources related to Israel and their war in Gaza against Hamas on Tuesday, April 24, 2024.

Pro-Palestine protesters at universities around the country have been demanding those institutions withdraw investments in Israel or companies with ties to Israel. But that can’t happen in Ohio, because of a state law passed two years ago. And those who support the demonstrators are frustrated with that.

In 2016, Ohio became the 14th state to ban state agencies from boycotting Israel or from entering into contracts with companies that have anti-Israel policies. In 2022, the law was amended to include universities — but this only applies to public ones.

"(Israel) is an important ally that has been under intense threat from their neighbors for a very, very long time - actually, from their inception," said Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), who sponsored that change to the law. "So I think that's why we in the United States have, from a policy perspective, have gone out of our way to single out Israel as a very special ally of ours."

Cirino said state law holds for public institutions, even if students want their university to pull investments away from Israel.

"Private universities and colleges can do that. They are free to do so. Public institutions that receive taxpayer dollars should follow and must follow Ohio law," Cirino said. "There could be groups of students who feel differently about that part of Ohio law and probably many other aspects of Ohio law. We can't leave it in their hands to revise code as they see fit."

Cirino is currently sponsoring Senate Bill 83, which targets conservatives' concerns about free speech on university campuses and sets specifics on "intellectual diversity".

The law from 2022 puts restrictions on certain university fees, sets up grants for students who are returning to college, requires evaluation of degree programs to ensure they align with workforce development priorities, and requires universities to adopt a free speech policy and set up a process by which those who feel it's been violated can file a complaint. But the divestment provision of Senate Bill 135 didn't get much attention; Cirino said that's because "we didn't have the same issue that we have today." It passed the legislature almost unanimously, with the only "no" vote from Sen. Niraj Antani (R-Miamisburg).

Dr. Pranav Jani is an associate professor of English and the president of the American Association of University Professors at Ohio State. He's also been faculty advisor to Students for Justice in Palestine for 30 years, 20 of them at OSU.

"Ohio State is wrong when it says that since such a law exists, we can't listen to protesters' demands, which include opening the books, not simply divestment," Jani said, noting that a non-binding vote on divestment from Israel by the undergraduate student government was blocked. "The law is being used to shut down any genuine debate about the question of divestment with regard to Israel."

“I think the Ohio law itself is unjust because it restricts the freedom of speech of people and the diversity of thought of people who have a different point of view," Jani said.

Jani also pointed out that Ohio State divested from South Africa because of its apartheid policy in the late '70s, and in 2022, the university lost Russian-made food-delivering robots after GrubHub ended a partnership with that manufacturer after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Jani is troubled by the law enforcement action at Ohio State after a large protest on April 25 that went on into the night. OSU said demonstrators were warned not to set up tents for an encampment. As some protesters gathered for an evening prayer and others encircled them, law enforcement moved in. More than 40 people were arrested.

"It's extremely painful. And it also makes me extremely angry," Jani said. "And this is not this is not how we should be treating students at Ohio State or anywhere else in the country."

But Cirino praised the response from Ohio State administration, saying protests have moved from expressions of free speech to events where policies and laws are violated.

"Everybody should feel safe to pursue their educational interests. And on so many campuses today in Ohio and outside of Ohio, particularly, this is what has been happening," Cirino said. "It is antithetical to what should be going on in higher education."

Last year the US Supreme Court declined to hear a case on a ban on divestment from Israel in Arkansas, letting stand a lower court ruling upholding the law.

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at