The student government at Oregon’s Portland State University voted to back divestment from corporations profiting from Israel’s occupation.
The landslide decision came despite stiff opposition from the institution’s president.
Students also call on the university to implement an investment screen against companies that provide weapons or equipment used for violence against civilians, the displacement of Palestinians or which contribute to Israel’s settlements and wall in the occupied West Bank.
“We picked [the four companies] not just because they’re violating Palestinian human rights, but because they’re violating human rights around the world,” said Sarah Abuelkhair, a recent graduate at Portland State University and a years-long member of Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER), a campus group organizing under the umbrella of National Students for Justice in Palestine.
“SUPER is really invested in solidarity with other marginalized communities, and so that was something that we emphasized to student government – this isn’t just affecting Palestinians, these companies are doing terrible things in other places,” Abuelkhair said.
She told The Electronic Intifada that the divestment vote came after years of campaigning by SUPER, including senate scrutiny and delays meant to deter SUPER from re-introducing the resolution.
“It was clear that it was only happening to [our student group] because of the material,” Abuelkhair said.
However, the resolution “remained strong, and in certain cases got even stronger” through the rigorous process, said Hanna Eid, a member of SUPER.
He told The Electronic Intifada that many people from other campus groups came to support the resolution.
“In the room, after the vote passed, it was electric,” he said.
Eid and Abuelkhair said Israel advocates on and off campus vilified the resolution and members of SUPER itself.
“We were attacked, we were constantly called bigots and anti-Semitic, but a lot of our community members and students who are Jewish also had to deal a lot with the opposition,” Abuelkhair said.
“They were yelled at, cursed at, called self-hating Jews, other things I’m not going to repeat. But we also got backlash from our president,” she added.
In June, outgoing PSU president Wim Wiewel called the resolution “divisive and ill-informed,” and urged student senators to vote against it.
He also echoed smears used by Israel-aligned organizations against the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, conflating criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism.
“The tone and tenor of the BDS movement has made members of our community feel unsafe and unwelcome at PSU, and it is not acceptable to marginalize or scapegoat them,” Wiewel claimed. “Anti-Semitism cannot and will not be tolerated on our campus.”
The program sponsors guided trips to Israel for heads of universities and student leaders, part of a larger, international program that also targets police chiefs, politicians, clergy, journalists and other influencers.
Such tours, author Max Blumenthal has noted, are “designed to impress suggestible American elites with the image of Israel as a dynamic start-up nation perpetually yearning for peace while struggling to defend itself from intractable foes” – especially the BDS movement on US campuses.
In January 2014, Wiewel admonished the American Studies Association’s adoption of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and vowed to “strengthen my pursuit of academic exchanges between Portland State University and Israeli institutions” in response.
“Tried to hold us back”
Abuelkhair said that the campaign for the resolution – and the way the opposition attempted to shut it down – helped sway support in its favor, including from student senators who had initially opposed it.
“The student government saw that people tried to hold this back, that there’s stuff that they don’t want us to see,” she said, adding that such a big victory had been unthinkable a few years ago. “The narrative is changing and people who aren’t listening before are starting to listen.”
SUPER said on Wednesday it hopes its success can encourage other student groups across the US to follow suit.
“We are proud that our campus is now on the right side of history,” SUPER said.