One year after Hampshire College in Massachusetts became the first university to divest from the Israeli occupation, student Will Delphia was hard at work completing a short documentary film exploring the events surrounding the historic decision.
Delphia, a member of Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which led the divestment campaign, was a relative newcomer to the organization, joining subsequent to the campaign’s victory. Combining SJP’s archival footage, clips from media coverage of the campaign and his own original interviews with many of the personalities involved, Delphia reconstructed what happened, why it happened and what it meant to those who participated.
Two years after divestment, the resulting thirty-minute film, To Know is Not Enough, provides a glimpse into the recent past, shedding light on how this 1,400-student liberal arts college in western Massachusetts suddenly became a household name for occupation opponents and apologists alike.
The film opens with a clip of Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, announcing that the administration of Hampshire College agreed to divest from a mutual fund invested in six companies the college’s SJP had identified as being most directly complicit in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip: Caterpillar, United Technologies, General Electric, ITT Corporation, Motorola and Terex.
Several members of SJP explain in the film how they first became engaged with the issue; several organizers say they felt they had no choice but to participate.
Palestinian Dina Jacir recounts her visit to her family’s village in the West Bank after a ten-year absence: “All of the sudden, I realized we were right by my grandparents’ house, and I’d had no idea that’s where we were because there was this ginormous 15- to 20-foot wall with a watchtower there, blocking my field of vision.”
Also interviewed in the film are Noam Bahat and Matan Cohen, who had both been involved in anti-occupation activism in their native Israel for several years prior to enrolling at Hampshire College. Bahat served nearly two years in prison for refusing to be conscripted into the Israeli army. The same army cost Cohen the use of his left eye, when he was shot with a rubber-coated metal bullet during a protest at the age of 17.
After introducing the activists, the film delves into the background of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, including the landmark 2005 Palestinian civil society call for BDS. SJP members reflect on the role they play as solidarity activists in a Palestinian-led movement, the jumping-off point for the meat of the film: a discussion of precisely how the BDS campaign unfolded at Hampshire.
Attendees of SJP’s first meeting recount that the issue was raised immediately upon the inception of the group. According to Quincy, one of the organizers interviewed, “From that first meeting, it was on the table, but it was a common consensus that there was no way we could push for anything like this without doing a substantial amount of work building the group and educating the campus.”
The film emphasizes the importance of long-term planning and a sustained, coordinated effort as well as the role of another student organization, Students Of Under-Represented Cultures and Ethnicities (SOURCE). One SJP activist notes that he didn’t feel SOURCE received enough of the credit initially: “I wish that there had been a more official and consistent and public acknowledgment of the role that [SOURCE-led] Action Awareness Week did play in producing a supportive climate for BDS.”
Action Awareness Week, held in 2008, was SOURCE’s response to a series of incidents which the group felt illustrated the need to focus attention on racism and oppression on campus.
As explained by member Jova Lynne Johnson, SOURCE was itself building on the efforts of minority organizers at Hampshire in decades past. In the 1970s and 1980s, minority students and their allies conducted extensive campaigns, including several building occupations, in pursuit of their goal of transforming Hampshire into an actively anti-racist campus. A key demand for these earlier activists had been divestment from apartheid South Africa.
Hampshire College ultimately became the first American university to divest from South Africa, establishing a precedent which would be leveraged decades later by SJP in their own divestment campaign focusing on Israel’s abuses of Palestinian rights.
Hira Nabi, a member of both SOURCE and SJP, explains that “the specific demands … that came out of Action Awareness Week recognized things that were happening within the school that directly needed to be talked about and addressed immediately, but also recognized that the school operates and exists within a larger context and a larger framework that’s not just the US, but is really the entire world.”
Thus, Action Awareness Week came to include a call for BDS within its demands, undoubtedly contributing to the growing support for SJP’s campaign. SJP organizers themselves focused on two main areas: raising awareness of Palestinian issues through direct and indirect outreach to the campus community (made easier due to the college’s small size), and by engaging the university bureaucracy. In the course of the latter effort, SJP members sought, received and made use of elected student positions within Hampshire’s governance structure.
Although successful in their primary goal of causing the college to divest its holdings in the targeted companies, members of SJP admit to being disappointed by the college’s handling of the matter after the decision was made. The administration, which SJP members say had hoped to keep the decision quiet, refused to announce the move publicly, leaving this in the hands of SJP (which had informed then-President Ralph Hexter of its intention to announce the development with or without the administration’s participation).
It is at this point that the film skips over an important series of events: the public response. According to numerous contemporary accounts, as well as personal recollections shared with this author by the organizers, reaction from both supporters and detractors was massive and immediate. The university was flooded with emails and phone calls, and the decision made international headlines. Divestment opponents were quick to mobilize. The most visible role was played by Harvard law professor and anti-Palestinian crusader Alan Dershowitz, who called for a donor boycott to punish the administration, and personally phoned and threatened members of SJP whose contact information had appeared in press releases.
According to Brian Van Slyke, an SJP member who is interviewed extensively in the film, the administration “buckled to outside pressure,” prevaricating and attempting to reframe its actions in a manner which would appease anti-Palestinian critics. The college issued a statement claiming that although the action had been taken as a result of a petition presented by SJP, the ultimate decision had nothing to do with SJP’s demands, essentially claiming that its divestment from the mutual fund was a coincidence.
Though dismayed by the administration’s reaction, members of SJP did not allow this to diminish their sense of accomplishment. “The school administration is not the school,” says one organizer interviewed in the film. “The school is everyone who goes — the staff, the students, the community at large — and those are the people who made a statement by organizing a movement, by getting this movement to succeed, and by getting the school’s finances out of the occupation.”
Within weeks of Hampshire’s divestment decision, members of SJP were being asked to speak at events across the country by other activists eager to learn how they had achieved their historic victory. Dozens upon dozens of such events took place, and Hampshire came to be seen as a key model for the movement. In November 2009, Hampshire SJP leveraged its new visibility to stage a national BDS conference, the first such gathering since early 2006. The conference helped rejuvenate campus Palestine activism in the US, which had waned somewhat as off-campus activism had been accelerating. This aspect of the campaign’s aftermath is unfortunately not addressed in the film.
The chief contribution of To Know is not Enough is to encapsulate much of the information shared by SJP members at these events. While there is little to be found in the film which could not be gleaned from news articles, press releases and videotaped talks by members of SJP, Delphia succeeds in aggregating and distilling most of the key elements.
Information on specific tactics and lessons learned is noticeably limited, in what was likely a deliberate decision. Delphia provides just enough to whet the appetite of tomorrow’s campus BDS campaigners, but challenges them to seek the remaining answers themselves.
For an undergraduate student film, To Know is not Enough is fairly well-edited, with only a few minor technical problems, mostly related to audio quality. It will be interesting to observe Delphia’s future output as he hones his filmmaking skills.
Abraham Greenhouse, co-founder of the Palestine Freedom Project, is a veteran campus activist and an occasional maker of silly internet videos.