A coalition of Columbia University students released a series of demands this week that clearly and forcefully lay the groundwork for the divestment of the University’s endowment funds from those corporations currently profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestine.
This step is long overdue. The recent assault on the people of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli Defense Forces—condemned by nearly all major international human rights organizations—has only increased the urgency of this campaign. Last month, Hampshire College became the first American university to divest from the occupation. Columbia should be next.
Israel’s attacks on Gaza, which included the bombing of schools and university facilities, is only the latest episode of brutality in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, an occupation that has lasted for more than forty years. Looking at the separation walls, barbed-wire fences, settler-only roads that criss-cross the West Bank and Gaza, and the highly restricted access of Palestinians to such basic regional resources as water, it is increasingly difficult to ignore the parallels to apartheid South Africa.
The United Nations defines the crime of apartheid as “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups … committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” People and organizations as diverse in their political standpoints as former President Jimmy Carter, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem have all arrived at the conclusion that Israel’s denial of Palestinian human rights and expropriation of Palestinian land amounts to apartheid.
In 2005, over 100 Palestinian civil society organizations called for “international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era … for the sake of justice and genuine peace.” An apartheid regime cannot exist in isolation. By divesting from companies that do business with the occupation, we can put global pressure on the Israeli government to end it. Students, faculty members, and workers at Columbia are participating in a global movement for justice for the people of Palestine. In the past year, dozens of divestment efforts have sprung up at universities across the United Kingdom, and labor unions in Canada, Ireland, and South Africa have endorsed divestment from the occupation.
In the recent past, the University has held shares in Lockheed Martin, maker of F-15 and F-16 Fighter Jets, used by the Israeli Air Force; Boeing, maker of Apache helicopters, used by Israel to perform extra-judicial targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders; General Electric, maker of engines for the Apache helicopters; Caterpillar, whose D9 bulldozers are used to “widen streets” to allow tanks to enter urban areas, as well as to destroy homes and raze olive groves to make room for illegal Israeli settlements. These common investments directly support the most brutal aspects of the occupation.
While Columbia does not currently hold stock in these particular companies, only 10 percent of its operating budget and endowment is transparent. It is because of the difficulty of accessing our university’s budget that we are asking for greater disclosure of its finances. As students, we have a right to know where our money goes, especially if that trail could end with the destruction of a Palestinian family’s home, or the death of a young child during an IDF air raid.
Hampshire College was also the first university to divest completely from South Africa in 1979. But in the fight against South African apartheid, Hampshire did not stand alone—one year earlier, in 1978, Columbia University began to sell off the stocks of companies associated with South Africa. That initial step followed a year-long protest and awareness campaign organized by a student coalition with support from many faculty members. The Columbia coalition’s victory helped spark a nationwide movement on college campuses, and today the University’s early decision to divest from South Africa appears not only wise and ethical, but also necessary. Our university’s principled stance on divestment from South African apartheid is a legacy we are proud of—and one we should both learn from and build upon today. Thirty years later, divestment from the Israeli occupation is just as ethical, just as wise, and just as necessary.
The author is a student in the Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences studying English and Comparative Literature. He is a member of the Columbia Palestine Forum. Reprinted from the Columbia Spectator.