Univ. of Chicago students celebrate divestment win

Students at the University of Chicago are celebrating the passage of a resolution calling on the institution to divest assets from firms aiding or profiting from Israel’s “violation of human rights and international law in Palestine.”

Meanwhile, students at the University of Minnesota chalked up a partial victory in their own divestment effort.

The University of Chicago’s undergraduate student government backed the divestment measure by 8 votes to 4 with 3 abstentions, after what campus newspaper The Chicago Maroon described as “contentious debate and procedural wrangling” on Tuesday night.

Efforts by opponents to amend the resolution, including a change meant to distance the divestment effort from the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, resoundingly failed, according to the Maroon.

The 10 companies named in the resolution include US-based Boeing, Raytheon, Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, as well as Israel’s Elbit Systems.

“Excitement”

UofC Divest, the campus coalition campaigning for the measure, thanked the 20 student organizations that endorsed the resolution.

“In addition to our substantial excitement about this victory, we’re also incredibly moved and humbled by the level of support UofC Divest has received in a few short weeks,” the group said in a press release.

“To everyone who came to one of our rallies, events, performances or college council meetings – thank you,” the group added.

This writer participated in a panel of University of Chicago alumni organized by UofC Divest on the eve of the vote.

Opposition to the resolution came from UChicago Coalition for Peace and J Street UChicago, liberal Zionist groups committed to the physical partition of historic Palestine into ethnically separatist Jewish-dominated and Palestinian-dominated entities.

UChicago Coalition for Peace called the resolution a “stain on the University of Chicago” and alleged that it “is not about human rights, but about the vilification of the Jewish state and denying its right to exist in any form.”

J Street UChicago said it was “deeply disappointed” in the vote.

Long road

Meanwhile, UofC Divest acknowledged that it still faces a long road from Tuesday’s vote to any actual divestment.

“If history is any indication, we know that the University of Chicago does not divest and does not move to value marginalized and oppressed communities easily,” the coalition said.

Based on the 1967 Kalven Committee report, the university has long upheld the social and political status quo by refusing to divest – including from apartheid South Africa and Sudan – under the guise of remaining neutral on political issues.

Last year, university president Robert Zimmer cited the Kalven Committee report to explain why the administration would be “unlikely” to respond to calls for divestment from fossil fuels.

But at the UoC Divest forum on Monday, several participants noted that the university has not been immune to protest.

For years, the university, which runs the largest medical center on Chicago’s South Side, had ignored calls to open a level 1 trauma center so critically injured persons would not have to be transported miles to the nearest facility capable of treating them – at risk to their lives.

But after a determined five-year campaign led by South Side youth, that occasionally involved occupations, arrests and disruptions, the university made an about-turn last December and announced it would open a trauma center.

The resolution adopted by the student government on Tuesday notes that even the Kalven Committee report “allows for divestment under circumstances when investing in corporations that engage in the human rights abuses and violations is ‘incompatible with paramount social values.’”

In that, UofC Divest sees enough reason to continue its effort.

“We are prepared to pressure the administration, and continue this campaign in new forms for months and years to come – until the University of Chicago divests from human rights abuses, and until Palestinians receive the justice, equity and freedom they deserve,” the coalition said.

Mixed result in Minnesota

At the same time as the divestment debate was taking place in Chicago on Tuesday night, a similar discussion was happening at the University of Minnesota.

But there, divestment advocates emerged with more mixed results.

The UMN Divest campaign said in a press release that it had put forward a resolution cosponsored by 36 campus groups calling for divestment from “four particular companies profiting from human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, the US/Mexico border and in prison detention centers across the world.”

The original resolution called for divestment from Caterpillar, Elbit Systems, G4S and Raytheon.

But during the student government debate, “the resolution was watered down and stripped of its meaning,” UMN Divest said.

It was amended to remove any reference to the specific companies, “leaving only the ask for transparency and the demand to divest from generally any company that profits off violations of human rights.”

According to campus newspaper Minnesota Daily, the move to strike the names of the companies was proposed by Sami Rahamim, president of the campus chapter of Students Supporting Israel.

“The companies were chosen specifically to target Israel and thereby the Jewish community on campus,” Rahamim said, echoing frequent Israel lobby talking points that opposing Israel’s human rights abuses amounts to anti-Jewish bigotry.

As The Electronic Intifada has reported, Students Supporting Israel bills itself as a “grassroots” initiative to counter the growing movement for Palestinian rights on US campuses, particularly boycott, divestment and sanctions.

But it looks more like astroturf – a manufactured grassroots campaign – backed by well-funded lobby groups closely tied to the Israeli government.

Seeking to water down the resolution may be an indication that pro-Israel groups do not believe they can defeat divestment as a matter of principle, but hope to direct attention away from Israel.

“Still a victory”

Rula Rashid, president of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Minnesota Student Association, expressed disappointment in the result.

“When it comes to human rights violations, it’s black and white. Either a company is violating human rights, or not,” Rashid said. “The lack of transparency that this resolution now carries is a tactic used to silence this narrative. This is essentially saying that human rights violations don’t matter if they are affecting Palestinians.”

Despite this, UMN Divest said “we do support the amended resolution, and see this as an important first step towards a more transparent and socially responsible investment policy.”

“This campaign has allowed us to make important and long lasting connections with other communities on campus, which we will continue to strengthen and build,” the coalition added.

“This was a small victory, but still a victory. We will continue our work towards a more just campus, step by step, in solidarity with our allies.”

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Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.