NYU rejects student demand to ditch investments in Israeli occupation

Photo shows the backs of women's heads as they watch a Caterpillar machine being used to raze a home

Caterpillar equipment is used by Israeli forces to destroy a Palestinian home in the West Bank city of Hebron in January 2015.

Mamoun Wazwaz APA images

In a landslide vote, students at New York University have demanded divestment from corporations that profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.

But NYU’s administration has expressed a determination to keep investing in firms that supply Israel with weapons.

The students’ vote comes after years of dogged campaigning.

The recently approved students’ resolution demands that NYU pull its investments from Lockheed Martin, General Electric and Caterpillar, three US-based companies that provide weaponry, technology and equipment to Israel to kill, injure, surveil and control Palestinians and to destroy their homes.

The resolution also calls on the college’s administration to implement a socially-responsible investment screening process.

It passed on 6 December with 35 student senators in favor, 14 against and 14 abstaining.

More than 60 campus groups and 35 members of faculty supported the divestment measure.

“We continue to see a linkage between Palestinian oppression and the struggle for Black liberation,” stated NYU’s Black Student Union on Twitter. The union encouraged its members to support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

“The support we received on campus and the ever-increasing number of members in Students for Justice in Palestine makes it clear that we’re witnessing a pivotal popular shift” in the discussions around Palestine, Leen Dweik, an organizer with Students for Justice in Palestine told The Electronic Intifada.

“Students are educating themselves on the issue and deciding to stand for human rights and dignity. I think we as Palestine organizers will only grow stronger from here,” Dweik added.

The resolution comes on the heels of an October pledge taken by 30 NYU student clubs “to not participate in or apply to study abroad programs hosted at NYU Tel Aviv,” noting that the programs with the university’s sister campus in Israel are inherently discriminatory against Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims as well as those who support the BDS campaign.

“Our participation would render us complicit in the state of Israel’s targeted discrimination against activists and Palestinian and Muslim students,” the groups remarked.

The student groups highlighted their support of John Cheney-Lippold, a professor at the University of Michigan who refused to write a letter of recommendation to a student wishing to apply to a study abroad in Israel program. Cheney-Lippold has been punished by the university at the behest of Israel lobby groups.

Israel lobby interference

The resolution passed despite repeated efforts by pro-Israel lobbyists on and off campus to derail the campaign and to smear Palestine supporters as anti-Semites.

Before last week’s vote, the operators of Act.IL – a mobile phone app backed by the Israeli government – urged its users to sign a petition to the NYU administration claiming that Jewish students faced discrimination due to the campaign to support Palestinian rights on campus.

The Act.IL app – the product of a partnership between Israel’s strategic affairs ministry and lobby groups – is used to launch fake grassroots social media campaigns, a tactic known as astroturfing, to make it appear that Israel has more public support than it does.

But “it didn’t work,” remarked @AntiBDSApp, a Twitter account which monitors the astroturfing campaigns of the Act.IL app.

Last year, members of NYU Students for Justice in Palestine received repeated death threats for their advocacy of Palestinian and Muslim rights and of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In years past, NYU’s administration had also engaged in a series of repressive actions against organizers for Palestine rights on campus, including threatening punishment against students who engaged in a mock eviction notice action that called attention to Israel’s illegal demolitions of Palestinian homes.

Upholding rights

Students told The Electronic Intifada that they anticipated the backlash and smear tactics that Israel advocates are known to use in order to steer student governments against divestment campaigns.

They met with individual senators and leaders of various student communities on campus to address their concerns, and held a series of rallies, meetings and other events with the larger student body to spread the word about the boycott movement.

“We had to stress the fact that the BDS movement was created in the spirit of upholding Palestinian human rights and that it doesn’t intend to marginalize Jewish communities, as much of our opposition claimed,” Bayan Abubakr told The Electronic Intifada.

Abubakr is a senator for the Muslim Students group and an organizer with NYU’s Students for Justice in Palestine.

This education campaign helped rally the dozens of campus clubs to support the resolution, Abubakr said, adding that “ultimately, our most important and useful strategy was directly addressing misconceptions surrounding BDS.”

In a statement released Monday, NYU denounced the students’ resolution and said that it was unable to “unilaterally direct” fund managers not to select certain companies’ stock and therefore could not afford to “liquidate assets in a time of considerable market volatility.”

Listed as one of the most expensive universities in the US, NYU holds more than $4 billion in its endowment.

Tellingly, the university claimed that the divestment resolution “is at odds with the trustees’ well understood position that the endowment should not be used for making political statements.”

But they have done so before, Abubakr told The Electronic Intifada.

In 2008, the university divested “from companies found to support the Sudanese state, which was in response to the genocide and human rights violations in Darfur,” Abubakr said.

Students pointed out that the university choosing to remain invested in human rights violations is inherently a political statement.

“It’ll be an uphill battle for sure, but this resolution was written with NYU’s principles in mind. The administration’s attempts to delegitimize it are a direct denouncement of NYU’s values,” Abubakr added.

The student divestment victory “sends a clear message that Palestine organizing and solidarity is here, it’s loud, and it’s powerful,” Dweik said, adding that students will no longer accept “being bullied into the shadows by an apartheid regime and its proxies.”

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If they invested in Coca Cola, Ford, IBM, the Associated Press, Kodak and a host of other collaborationist companies, the answer is "Don't bring it up."

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).