Update appended below.
Leeds has become the first UK university to divest from firms involved in the Israeli arms trade, after a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign by Palestine solidarity activists.
A spokesperson revealed to the Leeds student newspaper The Gryphon on Friday that the university has “divested of our holdings in Airbus, United Technologies and Keyence Corporation.”
The holdings had been worth more than $1.2 million.
The move came as a reaction to campus activists who had called for the university to divest from four firms in an open letter at the end of October.
The fourth firm was bank HSBC.
The university’s almost $1.7 million holdings in HSBC remain in place for now, despite the bank’s $1 billion investment in companies that arm Israel.
The university claimed to The Gryphon that its HSBC holdings involved “no direct investment in armament companies,” but said it was “in dialogue to understand investments in this area.”
Leeds Palestine Solidarity Group welcomed the news in a statement on Friday.
“This is a massive success,” said the group’s co-president Evie Russell-Cohen. “We hope that it will only be the beginning of a wave change across UK universities.”
She said it was “clear that the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is being heard in the UK.”
The group’s media officer Yousef Abdel Fattah said, “We hope all UK universities heed our call and divest just like they did with apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.”
Abdel Fattah said that, “Palestinian students on campuses, like myself, have to live with the knowledge that our tuition fees are invested in companies manufacturing the same weapons used in violence against our loved ones.”
The open letter, signed by 23 staff members, 19 student societies and hundreds of students, criticized university management for using tuition fees “to invest in business activity which enables Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.”
It cited the killing of 2,251 Palestinians during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, including 526 children.
Still work to do
The letter called on the university to divest from the four companies, and for the university to “adopt a stronger screening policy” for its investments.
It demanded management “impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against the state of Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.”
Although the UK’s National Union of Students has for years had a pro-BDS policy, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign told The Electronic Intifada that Leeds was the first university to actually divest holdings in firms involved in the Israeli occupation.
Last year the Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa announced it was joining the academic boycott of complicit Israeli institutions, saying it supported the call to “boycott Israel and Israeli institutions for as long as Israel continues to violate the basic human rights of the Palestinian people.”
In 2009, Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, became the first in the US to divest from companies involved in the Israeli occupation.
As is common when big businesses divest from Israeli-linked holdings, the University of Leeds sought to downplay the role of the BDS movement, telling The Gryphon, the student newspaper, that its divestment from the three arms firms was part of it “climate active strategy.”
Update, 9 November
The day after this article was published, Leeds university released a further statement casting doubt on “inaccurate reports in the press” and reiterating their line about the “climate active strategy” they claim to have adopted.
The university said it “agreed to adopt a climate active strategy on 31 May 2018 and the university has been implementing this over the last four months,” divesting from the three companies on 15 October.
And the university remains invested in fossil fuels, including holdings “of over £3.5 million [$4.5 million] in Shell and BP. The contradiction between its statement and its actions is clear.”
In the Leeds Palestine Solidarity Group statement, Leeds University Union’s People and Planet Society back this up, saying they are “in full solidarity” with the Palestine solidarity group.
“The fact that the university is using our campaign to erase the efforts of Leeds PSG, whilst still investing millions in fossil fuel companies, is hypocritical and offensive,” the statement read.
“We refuse to be complicit in this,” they stated. “The issues of climate justice and decolonization are inextricably linked.”
Leeds University Palestine Solidarity Group state that their campaign “has been active for over a year – long before the university divested,” and long before the open letter mentioned above. “It has included debates, speaker events and a hundred-strong protest on May 15 2018.”
The new Leeds university statement also included a carefully worded segment which stated that the university does not “have a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) policy in relation to Israel” – this is telling, because nobody had claimed they had.
What was reported, accurately, was the the university conceded to BDS demands – while publicly distancing themselves from the movement.
As reported above, such distancing is common after a BDS victory. As Labour Party activist and union organizer Shelly Asquith pointed out in a thread on Twitter, universities and other powerful institutions rarely, if ever, admit to being influenced by people power.
In an illustrative example from 2016, the Israeli subsidiary of French telecoms firm Orange was closed down after a powerful BDS campaign led by Egyptian and French activists.
The firm at the time claimed this was for purely commercial reasons – but nobody genuinely bought that. The influence of the BDS campaign was clear, and at one point the chief executive of Orange had to travel to Jerusalem for a furious dressing down by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The bottom line remains – the Orange franchise came to an end in Israel.
In the same manner, in Leeds the bottom line remains – three of the four companies targeted by activists have now been divested from.