Harvard Moves Toward Student Referendum on Divestment from Israel, Led by Rhodes Scholarship Recipient

'Harvard has a responsibility to listen to us,' says Asmer Asrar Safi

Asmer Safi (via
April 11, 2024

The Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, an anti-Israel student group, passed a petition on Tuesday that started the wheels turning toward a student referendum on whether Harvard University should divest from Israel. The student behind the effort is a Pakistani national who was recently named a Rhodes Scholar.

Asmer Asrar Safi, an international student at the Ivy League institution, is listed as one of the two student organizers behind the petition, which triggers a referendum asking students whether Harvard should divest from entities linked to "Israel's occupation of Palestine." Months earlier, in November, Harvard congratulated Safi for being named a Rhodes Scholar, noting that he plans to study "progressive political messaging" at the University of Oxford. Students must receive Harvard's endorsement before applying for the Rhodes scholarship, a selective process in which half of Harvard's prospective applicants are rejected.

In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Safi said he helped draft the petition in response to similar resolutions from the Harvard Law School Student Government and Harvard Divinity School Student Association. Those resolutions call on the Ivy League school to divest from "illegal Israeli settlements," and Safi said he hopes to "capitalize off of [their] momentum."

"One thing that we want to definitely emphasize is that Harvard has a responsibility to listen to us," Safi said.

At Harvard, prospective Rhodes applicants must receive approval from a two-tiered endorsement committee before they are allowed to apply. After securing Harvard's endorsement, Safi flew 7,000 miles to Pakistan for his interview and was subsequently selected as one of the nation's two Rhodes Scholars.

Harvard in a Friday statement dismissed Israeli boycott efforts, saying that its "leadership has made clear that it opposes calls for a policy of boycotting Israel and its academic institutions." The university declined to comment on Safi's petition and whether it stands by its decision to endorse the student as a Rhodes Scholar.

Safi did not respond to a request for comment.

The petition put forth by Safi and another anti-Israel student activist, Shraddha Joshi, gathered the required number of signatures within three hours of its launch. Once the signatures are verified by the Harvard Undergraduate Association's electoral commission, the divestment vote will take place within the next three weeks.

Safi's Palestine Solidarity Committee is the student group behind the infamous Oct. 8 statement that blamed Israel for provoking Hamas's terror attack. The statement said the Jewish state is "entirely responsible for all unfolding violence" and the "apartheid regime is the only one to blame."

Safi's anti-Israel activism at Harvard goes back to 2021, when he authored an op-ed for the Crimson. He accused Israel's "apartheid regime" of imposing "a hegemonic, authoritarian rule over Palestinians." He also signed a divestment statement issued that year, which called on the university to remove its "nearly $200 million in public, direct and indirect investments in companies that are involved in the illegal Israeli settlement enterprise."

In 2022, meanwhile, Safi appeared in a series of now-archived Palestine Solidarity Committee videos, in which he told listeners that it is their "duty" and "role" to "stand up, fight back, and stand in solidarity with Palestinians."

"Given the precise state-sponsored nature of the violence that ensues against Palestinians every single day—and the fact of the matter is that the Israeli government sponsors a settler colonial project—it is very pertinent for us to understand about how particular this power dynamic exists," Safi says in one video. "And as a consequence of that, it is very important for us to realize that it is our job as allies to stand up and speak up in solidarity with Palestinians across the world."

Safi studies social studies and ethnicity, migration, and human rights. He will graduate in the spring.