Following a sharp increase in divestment efforts across North American college campuses last spring, this academic year promises an even greater number of initiatives. The success and near-success of efforts at several campuses last year, coupled with Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla this summer, has inspired new efforts among peace and justice activists to target companies that profit from and abet Israel’s apartheid regime.
Perhaps the largest divestment initiative is taking shape in California. The California Israel Divestment initiative is seeking to put a ballot measure to California voters that requires the state pension funds, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), to divest from companies enabling or profiting from Israeli occupation and systematic violations of Palestinians’ human rights. Although not a university-based effort, it is being led in large part by faculty members and students. Their goal is clear: faced by stonewalling from university administrations, the case is being taken directly to California voters.
Students from the University of California (UC) and California State (CSU) campuses are coordinating a major drive to collect the 440,000 signatures required for the ballot initiative, and the list of volunteers keeps growing. The initiative has already received the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Professor Noam Chomsky, a number of other public and religious figures, and CalPERS and CalSTRS members.
Meanwhile, campus divestment efforts continue to grow in number and scope. University administrators, typically beholden to conventional donors and afraid of the “anti-Semitism label,” have moved to limit the “damage” of the mushrooming boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Hampshire College, for instance, sold its State Street fund but publicly denied that it was motivated by divestment from Israel. Some other administrations have tried to ignore the issue, wishing it away. However, these attempts have only backfired.
The response of the University of California (UC) administration to campus divestment initiatives is a prominent example of how desperate the status quo forces are, and the shrinking moral and intellectual ground under their feet.
Last spring, student governments at two UC campuses introduced measures calling for divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation and war crimes committed during its winter 2008-09 invasion of Gaza. In response, UC President Mark Yudof, together with the chair and vice-chair of the UC Board of Regents, issued a formal “UC Statement on Divestment” which rejected the singling out of Israel, even though the bills exclusively focused on US companies providing material support to Israel’s illegal occupation and documented war crimes. The statement also referred to the pain the divestment initiatives brought upon the Jewish community, despite the strong support that the bills received from local and international Jewish individuals and organizations. The statement ignored the 41 student organizations, 86 UC faculty members, not to mention five Nobel peace laureates, who publicly supported the resolutions. In addition to attempting to minimize the scope of the divestment initiative’s support on campus by its dismissive language, the statement declared UC opposition to considering any divestment measures to the regents unless the US government declares that the state in question is committing genocide.
However, the notion that an academic institution can follow a socially responsible investment policy only after the US government has made a finding that acts of genocide — no less - are taking place goes against UC’s legacy and the values of citizen-led democracy and activism. It ensures inaction in the name of unspeakable horror and surrenders human conscience and responsibility to the calendar and temperament of American politicians. After all, Washington has yet to make a determination on the Armenian genocide of the First World War!
According to this policy of deference to the US government, UC would have found it unacceptable to divest from companies supporting the Nazi occupation of Europe and the extermination of civilians in death camps prior to the US declaration of war — or even the official recognition of genocide after the war ended. Moreover, had Yudof been UC President in 1986, he would not have voted to divest from companies supporting South Africa’s apartheid regime when the UC Regents memorably did, to ground-breaking success. As an academic and presumed defender of free speech, the UC president should be protesting this policy, not advocating it.
These proclamations by university administrators aim to empty academic conscience and activism of any substance, and to reduce them to empty slogans and colorful parades. The policies they advance are a thinly-veiled effort to incapacitate university campuses from leading any effort to challenge racism and social injustice. As autonomous actors, universities and independent citizens should retain the right to influence the policy of their government. If what is going on in California is any indication, authoritative attempts by campus administrations to muzzle or stonewall the exercise of this right on campus will likely result in their constituency taking their activism to the street! It is this right that faculty and students alike will be exercising this academic year and every year on campus and off campus, until Israeli apartheid is dismantled.
Mohammad Talaat is Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at Cairo University and a UC Berkeley Alum. He currently is on academic leave in the San Francisco Bay Area.