Students for Justice in Palestine at Hampshire College launched a campaign to convince the college’s board of trustees to withdraw the college’s investments in six companies that support the Israeli occupation through their business activities. The board moved to pull its investments in over 200 companies, including the six listed in the group’s petition.
The two year campaign is the first effective one in the United States and comes amidst similar, growing activism around the world.
Hampshire College is a small liberal arts school in Amherst, Mass. founded in 1970 as an experiment in alternative forms of education. Its motto is, “To Know is Not Enough,” something student activists have put into action. With a student body of only 1,350, it has been a giant in the history of student activism. It was the first educational institution to divest from Apartheid South Africa, more than ten years before many other universities followed and the apartheid regime crumbled under international pressure.
On February 7, 2009, the Hampshire College board of trustees accepted recommendations from its investment committee. It suggested moving funds “without reference to any country or political movement.” The board acted to divest from more than 200 companies that violate several different standards comprising the college’s socially responsible investment policy – a policy the board suggested it will suspend.
In a statement, the board acknowledged that the review “was undertaken at the request of a sub-committee of the investment committee, to address a petition from a student group, Students for Justice in Palestine.” It sought to distance its final decision from the group’s request. It claimed the “decision expressly did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country.”
SJP claims that meeting minutes from a committee of Hampshire’s Board of Trustees show that “President [Ralph] Hexter acknowledged that it was the good work of SJP that brought this issue to the attention of the committee.”
SJP-Hampshire College organizer Matan Cohen, an Israeli, described the campaign. He said their petition calling for divestment attracted signatures from the “majority of the students.” They appealed to the university’s longstanding socially responsible investment policies and proved the targeted companies violate them.
Over 800 students, professors, and alumni signed SJP’s “institutional statement” calling for the divestment.
It took two years of organizing to convince the campus and the board that six corporations in the college’s portfolio provide Israel’s occupation forces “with equipment and services in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza.” The list includes Caterpillar, United Technologies, General Electric, ITT Corporation, Motorola, and Terex.
In response to Hampshire College’s decision, pro-Israel advocates have threatened to boycott the college. Alan Dershowitz, the prolific professor at Harvard Law School who once promised to dance on the grave of the divestment movement, announced so himself in a phone call to the group. This decision had a special ironic twist. Dershowitz’s son went to school there, according to Cohen.
Critics of divestment claim it unfairly singles out Israel, harms the chances of peace, and turns a blind eye to violence committed against the state.
The divestment campaign was endorsed by a list of luminaries, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Rashid Khalidi, Vice President of the E.U. Parliament Luisa Morganitini, Cynthia McKinney, former member of the African National Congress Ronnie Kasrils, Mustafa Barghouti, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, John Berger, Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, among others.
SJP said the campaign was a response to a 2005 call from over 170 Palestinian civil society groups for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) “as a way of bringing non-violent pressure to bear on the state of Israel to end its violations of international law.”
SJP’s actions at Hampshire College follow similar moves by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education in the UK, the Israeli group Gush Shalom, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and the American Friends Service Committee.
More recently, the University of Western Sydney’s Student Association formally joined the international BDS movement. Students from the University of Rochester in New York and members of the local Rochester community occupied an academic building on their campus last weekend.
Student governments at several universities in the UK have taken significant steps. A student sit-in at a Scottish university ended after the university authorities agreed to cancel their contract with an Israeli water company.
Cohen called on supporters of divestment to contact Hampshire College to thank the board for its decision.