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Divestment Campaign On Campuses Growing

By Sandi Cain
Arab-American Business Magazine
Volume 3 Issue 5
April / May 2003

Grassroot efforts to get universities to divest from Israel are picking up steam; growth in coordination among campuses cited as key next step

Growing activism on campuses against U.S. policy in Iraq has given campaigns to divest from Israel a boost. While UC Berkeley has taken the lead to pressure administrators and companies to divest from investment in Israel, a growing number of campuses across the country are joining the effort.

At first glance, Bishop Desmond Tutu, an Irish-American law professor and Students for Justice in Palestine might not seem to have much in common. As it turns out, they are all an integral part of a burgeoning campaign to encourage colleges and universities to stop investing in companies that do business in Israel.

Launched just two years ago by Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of California, Berkeley, the divest-from-Israel campaign has gathered steam at an unprecedented pace on college campuses across the country. Campaigns are already under way at about 50 universities, where petitioners urge the schools to remove Israel-friendly companies from their investment portfolios.

Berkeley claims about 6,000 signatures from students, faculty and staff. Ohio State University—which began its petitions only three months ago—already has 1,500. And the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus got 350 signatures in two months. Other existing petitions appear to average around 500 signatures; some schools are just starting to seek signers.

Now campaign leaders are exploring ways they can take the drive to the next level with additional conferences organized by a national coalition of students from various universities. They also are trying to raise enough funds to develop an international clearinghouse for the campaign and a resource center for activists.


University of Illinois law professor Francis A. Boyle, credited with suggesting the campaign when he called for divestment in a November 2000 speech, says response has snowballed more quickly than it did for a similar campaign against South African apartheid in the 1980s.

“This thing has taken off like wildfire,” he says.

The professor, whose involvement in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict began in 1967, has written and lectured extensively on international law and politics. He says he likes to offer a “call to action” when he speaks to show listeners ways they can help.

“It took many years to organize South Africa,” he says. “People need to be educated first.”

This time, the internet has been a factor. Non-existent to the public in the 1980s push against apartheid, today the Internet helps spread the word of the divestment boycott and allows fellow students to easily exchange information and solicit registrants for student conferences.
Based on a similar—and eventually successful—campaign protesting the territorial segregation known as apartheid in South Africa, the divest-from-Israel movement is a non-violent attempt to educate people about the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict and encourage them to refrain from dealing with companies that invest in Israel. The hope is that economic sanctions will soften Israeli intransigence in negotiating a peace settlement with the Palestinians regarding the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Proponents of the current campaign say Israel’s occupation of the mandated territory isolates Palestinians in the same way apartheid separated the races in South Africa. Anti-apartheid leader Bishop Desmond Tutu last summer publicly supported divestment as one method to end the illegal Israeli occupation.

Israel and Apartheid-era South Africa

Last fall, Washington, D.C. African-American talk show host Mahdi Bray compared the Palestinian struggle to U.S. civil rights protests and the struggle against apartheid during a speech at a divestment conference in Michigan.

Activists believe the analogy to apartheid works in the campaign’s favor. The analogy makes it comprehensible to people familiar with the issue of apartheid. In addition, economic sanctions are fairly well understood, given the long-time U.S. sanction against Cuba and – at one time — China. Students, unions, religious leaders and consumers who boycotted South African goods were the driving force against apartheid.

Boyle— who was legal advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace negotiations between 1991 and 1993—says he’s not surprised that Berkeley was the first school to step up to the plate with a petition urging the University of California to divest. It was one of the schools that led the way in the anti-apartheid campaign.

“Berkeley is always the vanguard of progressive thought in America,” says Boyle, who is of Irish descent.

The Students for Justice in Palestine campaign at Berkeley asks for divestment until Israel complies with U.N. resolutions, withdraws from the Occupied Palestinian Territories and gives refugees the right of return.

Berkeley hosted a student conference in February 2001 that drew 500 participants. Last fall, a second student conference was held at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. It, too, drew 500 supporters (others were turned away due to space limitations) and led to the idea of a national coalition.

This past January, about 25 activists from various campuses met in Washington, D.C. to discuss a national approach to student conferences and resource centers that would benefit the campaign without diluting campus autonomy. A third conference is planned for Rutgers University in New Jersey in the fall.

Uri Strauss—a Canadian graduate student from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst whose mother is Israeli—was one of them. He says the group will plan the Rutgers conference and work to get media attention for it.

“Divestment gives a focal point to the issue,” he says. “It connects people. Campus media can focus on the progress of the petition.”

Speakers and position papers, while valuable in some settings, don’t have the same effect on a campus, he says.

But despite the campaign’s achievements, challenges remain. Not every campus approaches the campaign the same way—nor uses the same name for its student groups. Several campuses are organized under Students for Justice in Palestine; the Michigan group is called Allied Students Allied for Freedom & Equality. Some don’t have a formal name.
Campuses like Columbia only oppose investment in companies that manufacture and sell arms. Others oppose all investment.

And assessing progress is difficult with no central entity to keep track of petitions and total signatures.

Berkeley activist Will Youmans, a law student whose mother came from Palestine, agreed that the effort can seem disorganized.

“Activists in general are against hierarchy,” he says. “It’s a very localized effort.”
But the decentralized nature, he says, also allows for flexibility and diversity for college campuses.

Boyle says students at some schools have contacted him for advice on how to structure their efforts.

“It has to make sense for each campus,” he says. “I always recommend looking at what was done regarding South Africa. No one is reinventing the wheel,” he says.

Other challenges are more complex.

Strong Support for Israel

To most Americans, Yasser Arafat isn’t the sympathetic figure that Nelson Mandela was. And Israeli supporters are numerous in the U.S.—sometimes outnumbering conference attendees in opposing divestment—whereas apartheid defendants were a rare commodity.

Financially, university investments are larger and more diverse than they were in the 1980s. Today’s portfolios are likely to include pension funds or mutual funds that invest in numerous companies.

Boyle himself sees the difficulties this time around that weren’t so evident in the fight against apartheid.

“Yale has a tough corporate investment policy (to challenge),” Boyle says. “They’d have to sell everything off.”

Boyle says one solution would be to enlist a financial planner to set up an ‘Israel-free’ investment fund.

“That kind of alternative is needed to go to boards of directors and pension funds to ask people to move their money,” he says.

The new leaders emerging from the movement may be the ones to find those alternatives. Already they are experimenting with ways to get their message across.

Palestinian Feras Abou Galala, an Ohio State University graduate engineering student, learned of the Michigan conference from a friend there and became involved with the movement a short time later. Ohio State, he says, has a “very organized” group of about 20 people who campaign tirelessly on behalf of the movement.

“We went out every week for the whole (last) quarter to get signatures,” he says. “We even knocked on doors in dorms.”

Volunteers found they were sometimes faced with questions they couldn’t answer. So they met each week, researched the answers to those questions and returned to the dorms to relay the results of their work. They also built a database of frequently asked questions and answers to assist other activists.

“It’s a good tactic to go back with answers,” Abou Galala says. “It creates a relationship that helps people see the point of the peaceful movement.”

At Berkeley, Youmans thinks the program is going well. To date, they have about 5,000 signatures.

“The number of signers is good for just two years,” Youmans says.

He’s confident that number will grow, especially now that the Arab Defense Council in San Francisco and the Center for Policy on Palestine are getting involved.

“The Bay Area hasn’t reached its peak,” he says. “Less than 5% of the (University of California) system has signed so far.”

Youmans says the biggest opponent to the cause is apathy. Also fear especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the Bush Administration’s targeted campaign against Arab American and American Muslims.

Some activists have been detained, making others hesitant to join the effort. “International students are afraid,” he says.

The Berkeley Example

But Berkeley’s efforts have been inspirational for students at other campuses.

The Berkeley conference inspired University of Maryland computer science student Jawad Muaddi to help develop a petition on his College Park campus.

“I wasn’t an activist before,” he says.

Muaddi says the Maryland group tries to employ a personal touch, taking the message directly to others rather than bringing in speakers to lecture. And they are calling on that university to divest just one portfolio that is invested in 16 companies doing business in Israel.

“It’s hard to explain what we’re doing in five minutes,” Muaddi says. “If you can get a conversation going about it, then people are more likely to support the effort.”

At MIT, organizers went farther afield: they found alumni in Israel willing to support their petition.

Despite the seemingly fragmented approach to the divestment campaign, it’s gaining steam.
“We know it will take a few years,” Muaddi says. “But it makes people more attentive and shows them a link between the university and the Middle East.”

There certainly are precedents for political movements to start on the college campus in this country, most notably in the ‘60s and ’70s era of anti-Vietnam war protests. Today, those voices are reappearing with signs that read “Don’t attack Iraq” and other anti-war sentiments.

Should the U.S. involve itself in war in Iraq, there’s no telling where an anti-war campaign might lead. At the very least, it might lead to a better understanding of the issues at hand, creating new opportunities for the proponents of divestment.

“Student groups are a great place to start,” Muaddi says. “Other groups should probably take divestment off the campuses. Maybe they will as student activists graduate.”


Appendix I - Campus Activism

The following is a sampling of campuses where students, faculty and staff can sign petitions asking for an end to university investment in companies with interests in Israel:

• Columbia University
• Cornell University
• Duke University
• Georgetown University
• Harvard University
• Ohio State University
• Penn State University
• Princeton University
• Rutgers University
• Tufts University
• University of California, Berkeley
• University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
• University of Maryland
• University of Massachusetts
• University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
• University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
• University of Pennsylvania
• University of Texas, Austin
• Virginia Commonwealth University
• Yale University

University Investments Targeted

• Harvard University
- About $614 million in companies with Israeli interests

• University of California
- Approximately $6.4 billion invested in companies with interests in Israel

• University of Maryland
- Nine companies, representing about $40 million of university investments, are targeted by activists

• University of Michigan
- $150 million in companies that do business in Israel


Appendix II - Companies Targeted

Companies that conduct business with or in Israel include a broad cross-section of the corporate world. Some student groups target only those companies that provide military equipment or services; others target any company with offices, stores or other interests in Israel.

Among the major companies on targeted list are those below:
• AOL Time Warner
• AT&T Communications Inc.
• A&W Root Beer
• Berlitz
• Blockbuster Video
• Boeing Corp.
• Compaq Computer Corp.
• Conexant
• Deloitte & Touche
• Eastman Kodak
• E*TRADE Group
• General Electric
• Goldman Sachs
• Hertz Corp.
• Hilton International Co.
• Intel Corp.
• Johnson & Johnson
• Lucent Technologies
• McDonald’s Corp.
• Microsoft Corp.
• Pepsico
• Pratt & Whitney
• Ralston Purina Co.
• Robert Half International
• Solectron
• Sportmart Inc.
• Taco Bell
• Toys R Us
• Unisys
• Weyerhauser Co.