A Yale Hunger Striker Speaks Out

A student who took part in a radical protest explains its rationale and reflects on their experience

A Yale Hunger Striker Speaks Out
Students and activists hold Palestinian flags and banners at a demonstration at the University of California, Los Angeles, in April 2024. (Qian Weizhong/VCG via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: Amid a wave of protests on American university campuses against U.S. backing for Israel in the war in Gaza, a group of Yale University students went on hunger strike. The essay below is a reflection on the protests and the rationale behind their actions by one of the students, who requested anonymity to avoid repercussions from the university administration and targeted reprisals.

On April 12, 2024, the last day for Yale President Peter Salovey and the Board of Trustees to answer our demands to divest from military weapons manufacturing, my aunt passed away in hospice care. With no response from the administration, we began our hunger strike the following day.

Faced with this new wave of grief, I did not know how I was going to feel, physically and emotionally, over the next couple of days. I had never gone on hunger strike before. Refusing food, on top of continuing to do schoolwork and emotionally supporting my family from afar, seemed impossible. However, to my surprise, my mental clarity and steadfastness only grew as the days went on. Did I get my work done? No. But my commitment to seeing a free Palestine within my lifetime only grew stronger.

I stopped eating on April 13 and ate again on April 20. Over the week, I lost 15 pounds. During the last days of refusing food, I could not take full breaths anymore. Especially when I was trying to sleep, I couldn’t breathe deeply, which was terrifying. Each night, I could only sleep for 5 or 6 hours. Waking up would feel exhausting. It felt like I didn’t sleep at all. The hardest part of the day was the morning. I would wake up so, so sad. The exhaustion, the rage at my university’s inaction, its failure to acknowledge the Palestinians, its continued investment in weapons manufacturing, the grief of watching another person die on live streams over the last 200-plus days, all of this would sit in my body as I propped myself up after another restless night.

My body felt like it was filling up with lead. Each morning, I would inspect the growth of the bags under my eyes and the growing look of exhaustion on my face scared me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Palestinians who are undergoing collective starvation by the state of Israel, and their faces of exhaustion. I only see glimpses of that exhaustion on social media, before it becomes too painful to scroll anymore.

I know the movement for a free Palestine is the people’s movement because of the way our fellow Yale students and community members showed up for us as we camped outside all week. We did not ask for or collect financial donations. People donated masks, water, COVID tests, blankets, handwritten notes, hand-warmers, umbrellas and flowers. On the second day, a woman donated the coat she was wearing and refused to let us give it back to her. People stopped by all week to write letters to Salovey. People brought their classes and their discussion sessions to hold with us in solidarity. People came to fold paper cranes and string them. The most beautiful family would stop by nearly every day to check in on us and offer their support. The mother offered to smudge us in, and we all cried as she shared this gift. I noticed her children crying as well as they watched us, and that is when I truly felt in my heart that what we were doing was right. Another family came by whose son asked us why we were striking, and it was beautiful to witness a fellow striker explain with compassion and care why we were refusing food. I did not disclose to my students that I was hunger striking, and yet my students came by and checked on us to offer support. It is a privilege to learn from the Yale undergraduates, and it was beautiful to see the acts of kindness and solidarity that occurred during our strike. All of this mutual aid happened because of deep love for Palestinian liberation and the right of Palestinians to live and thrive in peace.

I joined the hunger strike because I felt that I was becoming numb to what was happening to the Palestinians. The university administration had ignored all the “proper” avenues students had used up to that point to address Yale’s complicity in the violence, and I had lost my ability to imagine any other way to get the university to hear us. My imagination was crushed. I had no new ideas. It became too easy to look away from Gaza and the West Bank and assume that I could live my life in relative safety, as if what the Palestinians were going through had nothing to do with me. Which is a total lie.

If I think about being at a university, I think constantly about the destruction of every single university in Gaza. What archives are left? How many professors, teachers and students have been murdered, and whose names do we not even know because they remain buried under the rubble? Whose names can we never know, because entire families have been murdered? I could no longer participate in the university in a business-as-usual fashion (going to class, reading, teaching my students) without feeling the immense grief of all the university students in Gaza, and the generations of young people who will never be able to go to a university in Gaza because the Israeli military destroyed them along with the entire educational infrastructure. I think about my Palestinian peers at Yale, who for months have witnessed the Yale administration fail to mention the word “Palestinian” in any community email about these “challenging times.” I don’t know how to write another paper or read another book without seeing Palestine in my mind and feeling the steadfast heartbeat of the Palestinian people in my soul.

I wrote a poem on Oct. 19, 2023, from a hospital. My aunt was on emergency life support and being in a hospital and preparing for the loss of a beloved family member felt paralyzing, as I was witnessing the collective punishment and murder of Palestinians on my phone. I titled it, “to gaza, from safe hospital.” Here’s an excerpt:

a grimace signals to administer morphine
Focus on comfort
“I need to go back”
i’ve been watching you die for a year
but no one wanted to talk about it
i can’t help but think as i hear the machines beep
the quiet of the TV humming
i can’t help but think of a different kind of
an immediate silence
the burning hum of a hospital reduced to
did we never talk about death
because we believed that we deserved to live?

I like to think that my aunt passed on some of her remaining strength to get me through the strike. She knew how deeply the war in Palestine was affecting me. The last time I saw her, I told her how hard it had been to act like everything was OK at school. And despite being in a hospice, she held my hand and said, “Take care of yourself and move with love.”

This hunger strike, and the level of care that was put into it by fellow students to keep us supported, was the most beautiful expression of love that I have felt and witnessed while at Yale. It was a privilege to hunger strike with my peers, in solidarity with the previous hunger strikers at other campuses, in solidarity with the ongoing hunger strike at McGill University and, most importantly, in solidarity with the Palestinians.

Yale has an opportunity to set a precedent by being the first university to take an active stand and divest from weapons manufacturing. No university, especially a nonprofit one such as Yale, should be investing in weapons manufacturing at all. What would count as causing “grave social injury,” which Yale argues it does not see in its weapons investments?

(On April 17, 2024, Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR), which is a body intended “to support the ethical management of Yale’s endowment,” concluded that “military weapons manufacturing for authorized sales did not meet the threshold of grave social injury, a prerequisite for divestment, because this manufacturing supports socially necessary uses, such as law enforcement and national security.”)

How many more Palestinian mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmothers, grandfathers, nieces and nephews need to die for Yale to consider divesting from war?

I don’t know if anyone in the Yale administration cared about what we did as hunger strikers. But I know that they saw us, and maybe that is what matters.

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