Are we attending a university, or a cold, faceless corporation?

5 January 2014

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Students aim to bring attention to Israeli abuses, such as the 5 September 2013 demolition of Shaker Jaabis’ home in occupied Jerusalem.

(Saeed Qaq / APA images)

On 10 December, thousands of students at the University of Michigan woke up to find mock eviction notices posted to their dormitory rooms.

The notices were a direct action carried out by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), aimed at presenting the truth about Israeli housing demolitions in occupied Palestine.

The goal of the action was to engage the campus community, students and faculty alike, in a discussion about our complicity in human rights abuses abroad. Our university has significant stocks invested in companies that support, facilitate and profit from the illegal Israeli occupation.

Mobilizing students

Dell supplies tens of thousands of computers to the Israeli military. General Electric supplies engines for Israel’s Apache assault helicopters used in extrajudicial assassinations of political opponents that also have led to the deaths of countless Palestinian civilians in the vicinity.

Heidelberg Cement operates a quarry in the occupied West Bank providing supplies for the construction of illegal settlements. Hewlett-Packard provides biometric monitoring for checkpoints, including several in the occupied West Bank.

In these four companies alone, our university’s shares were valued at approximately $1.7 million as of 2012.

SAFE spent months contemplating which action would best achieve our aim, and created a plan to raise ongoing awareness — and, ultimately, direct action. With the mock eviction initiative, we believe we successfully accomplished this goal, as many student leaders and administrators have reached out to us in solidarity.

In the past few years, our university has not seen Palestinian solidarity activism of this scale and nature due to a passivity in the student body. This was bred by fear of social, political and academic repercussions.

SAFE understood these concerns, and after weeks of reflection we chose to go forward with our action to reinvigorate the campus climate. We aimed to foster a dialogue that could mobilize people and challenge the preconceived notions held by some of our peers.

University or corporation?

In passing out eviction notices, we knew that we would be targeting a population of mostly new students. Our motivation was to break down the norms of institutionalized activism on campus that cater to people’s comfort — such as fliers promoting apolitical events, or weekly film screenings that are scarcely attended by those outside the student groups sponsoring them.

We have intentionally exposed students to a new way of approaching an uncomfortable situation through direct engagement and action. Education should involve people stepping out of their comfort zones.

Using the Twitter hashtag #UMMockEviction, activists and students sparked lively online discussion about the action and about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Our event was part of the larger boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that is calling on the university to divest funds from companies profiting from the illegal Israeli occupation.

As students, we’ll pay nearly $100,000 or more to this university by the time we graduate. As evidenced by our public university’s investment portfolio, our tuition dollars contribute to the continual destruction of Palestinian livelihoods.

As the students of moral and social conscience in which our university prides itself, we cannot remain idle in a situation so blatant. Any profit the university earns from such investments of our tuition will have been generated from companies helping Israel violate Palestinian rights.

In March, the University of Michigan’s chief investment officer Erik Lundberg stated: “The regents have said the investments should be done based on the merit of return. We try to be blind to social factors” (“Ten things you should know about the University of Michigan’s multibillion dollar endowment,” The Ann Arbor News, 26 March 2013).

Are we attending a university, or a cold, faceless corporation?

Israeli war crimes

As a university that claims to uphold values of diversity, social responsibility and global awareness, should our investments not reflect these values?

Our intention was to educate our colleagues about how we are implicated in undermining the internationally recognized rights of Palestinians. But another aim was to demonstrate our collective power and remind the administration that we have the right to stop the university from putting profits over people.

Lundberg’s statement suggests that the university is conscious of Israeli war crimes, but chooses to ignore them. Thus, it deserves to be shamed for supporting them.

As Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, we encourage full divestment at the University of Michigan from companies complicit in the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and from companies that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights and dignity.

Our initiative is not one that could have garnered such success without the solidarity and support of other groups and staff on campus. We hope to see the trend of coalition building and solidarity continue in our joint struggle for justice, human rights and equality in Palestine and elsewhere.

Samia Ayyash is a Palestinian-American activist and student at the University of Michigan. Brandon Baxter is a University of Michigan student, commentator and activist.

Comments

The campaign might start a dialogue with the regents? I presume that what the regents have in mind is their fiduciary duty to invest for the purpose of economic gain to the trust fund of the university. This duty was emphasised (in English law - I know little of USA law, sorry) in National Coal Board vs Scargill (1984), a decision of Megarry J. Usually, trustees should have the economic interests of the trust in mind when investing, and not other, e.g. ethical, interests. However, in the later case of Harries vs Church Commissioners, the Bishop of Oxford objected to the Church's investment in arms manufacture. The English High Court court held that charity trustees (which the Michigan regents are) may take into account the overall funding of their institution when selecting investments. If a particular investment would be offputting to donors to the charity, which may include future donors such as alumni, then the trustees may select alternative investments of equal financial standing. In the Michigan case, the 4th Geneva Convention places responsibility on participating states to act against breaches of the convention. Naturally, this casts such breaches in a bad ethical light for institutions and individuals, even though they themselves may not have an actual legal duty to end the breaches (this being a duty imposed on governments). The activities of the said companies are likely to be breaches in various respects. The regents of the university have no legal duty to keep these objectionable investments, which alienate students, staff and potential donors, and are inconsistent with ethical values being promoted in class and elsewhere by the very same university. A reasonable legal argument exists protective of the regents' right, indeed moral and leadership duty, to disinvest from the occupation-associated companies. They would be wise to divert these investments to more ethically acceptable, less divisive, business activities.