Students in Washington State and around the world are locked in a passionate debate over whether colleges should divest from Israel as a protest over the country's treatment of Palestinians.
The global movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel suffered a resounding setback this week in Seattle when the University of Washington's student senate rejected a resolution that would have pulled UW investments out of companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The defeat was particularly disappointing for Seattle-native and Evergreen College senior Elizabeth Moore, one of many local activists involved in the global divestment campaign. (The UW vote affects Evergreen too. More on that soon.) As a young Jewish woman, Moore has always had a vexing relationship with Israel. Her criticisms of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians have led to accusations that she was a “turn coat” and “a self-hating Jew.”
When she started at The Evergreen State College in 2010, Moore’s desire to balance her Jewish identity with her ideals for social justice drove her to join the student group Mideast Solidarity Project, now called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). She arrived just as the organization was celebrating a pivotal victory.
In the second largest turnout (34%) for any ballot measure in the history of Evergreen, 79% of the participating students voted in favor of divesting from companies linked to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The election result was subsequently affirmed by a divestment resolution passed by Evergreen's student government. After months of educational events, meetings and impassioned speeches, the Palestinian solidarity activists had finally won.
But nothing happened.
Ironically, control over Evergreen's investment portfolio, and thus divestment, rests with the University of Washington. According to a 2012 financial report, $4.8 million of Evergreen’s $5.7 million endowment is held — along with 3,100 other individual portfolios — in the Consolidated Endowment Fund, which is managed by the UW. Pooling investments makes sense financially, but it leaves Evergreen with little say over where and how its money is invested.
Removing its investments from the pooled fund isn’t such a simple matter either. Although Evergreen wouldn’t incur any withdrawal fees, replicating the financial performance of the pooled fund would be “difficult if not impossible” with other investment options, says Todd Sprague, a spokesperson from Evergreen's treasury office.
Moore and other divestment activists have spent the last four years quietly maintaining awareness of the issue at Evergreen while working with UW students to slowly build support for divestment on that campus. Their efforts coalesced in Resolution 20-39, which the UW's student senate roundly rejected this week by a 59-8 vote (with 11 abstaining and 29 absent).
Had the student senate and its Board of Director passed the resolution, the senate would have sent a formal recommendation to the ultimate decision makers, the UW Board of Regents.
During discussions before the final vote, one senator warned that approving such a controversial measure could harm the credibility of the student senate. “This is one instance when UW’s cutting-edge innovation would be a bad thing,” he told his senate colleagues.
Despite the defeat, the divestment issue isn’t likely to disappear. Proponents point to what they say is growing campus support, saying that this week's failure has only strengthened their resolve.
Resolution 20-39 ignited a heated campus debate about the university’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; about whether maintaining financial ties to Israel makes schools complicit in what has been called an "apartheid state"; and about whether divestment unfairly singles out Israel.
“It’s a question of do you support human rights violations or not?” asked Caitlin Palo, a graduate student and a member of Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights, one of several campus organizations that cosponsored Resolution 20-39.
For opponents, at campuses in Washington and around the world, the resolution is an unjust attack on Israel. “Blaming and sanctioning only one side does nothing to promote an agreement that is just for both peoples,” argued David Weingarten, a student senator and member of the UW Hillel Board of Directors. On the contrary, it “polarizes the debate more, and decreases the chances for peace.” It could also depress enrollment, warned Rabbi Oren Hayon in The Jewish Sound, by making “UW a less attractive option for prospective Jewish students making decisions about where to go to college.”
Rather than a wholesale divestment, Resolution 20-39 targeted companies involved in the occupation or militarization of Palestinian territories. This includes corporations linked to the demolition of Palestinian homes and the construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory; the maintenance of the Separation Wall; and the supply of weapons and surveillance technologies to the Israeli military.
The resolution focused on Northrop Grumman, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola Solutions, G4S, Elbit Systems, Veolia Environment, and Caterpillar Inc. (According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Caterpillar bulldozers are used to raze Palestinian homes and olive groves. In 2003, a Caterpillar bulldozer crushed Evergreen student Rachel Corrie when she tried to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home.)
The UW resolution also named Elbit Systems, which provides unmanned drones to Israel.
Boeing was strategically left off the resolution’s divestment list, despite the fact that it provides Apache Helicopters and missile defense systems to the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Proponents may introduce a separate resolution focused on Boeing in the future.
The UW and Evergreen divestment initiatives are part of a global movement to exert pressure on the Israeli government through boycotts, divestment and sanctions. Activists liken their efforts to the South Africa boycotts to end apartheid. At least 11 American universities have voted to approve financial divestiture, along with a handful of churches. Two American academic organizations have also issued boycotts against academic institutions in Israel.
The UW student senate vote occurred just two weeks after Israeli Independence Day and five days after Al Nakba, the day Palestinians commemorate their displacement in the 1948 war.
Whatever happens in the coming years, the failure or success of divestment would have important implications beyond both UW and Evergreen campuses. “The discussion is not just about UW’s investments,” observed David Weingarten. “Rather it’s about the way our community perceives the Israel-Palestine conflict and the parties involved.”
Four years after joining the Mideast Solidarity Project, Elizabeth Moore, with her own strong views on the issue, is now the coordinator of SJP. She is preparing to graduate from Evergreen next month, with a degree in political economy. After a trip to the West Bank in 2012, and hours of organizing meetings and vigils to raise awareness, Moore had hoped to graduate from an Evergreen that was divested from Israel.
She’s still waiting.
Photo of students holding signs at student senate meeting courtesy of Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights.