Campaign On Campuses Growing
By Sandi Cain
Arab-American Business Magazine
Volume 3 Issue 5
April / May 2003
Grassroot efforts to get universities to divest
from Israel are picking up steam; growth in coordination among campuses
cited as key next step
Growing activism on campuses against U.S. policy in Iraq has given
campaigns to divest from Israel a boost. While UC Berkeley has taken
the lead to pressure administrators and companies to divest from
investment in Israel, a growing number of campuses across the country
are joining the effort.
At first glance, Bishop Desmond Tutu, an Irish-American law professor
and Students for Justice in Palestine might not seem to have much
in common. As it turns out, they are all an integral part of a burgeoning
campaign to encourage colleges and universities to stop investing
in companies that do business in Israel.
Launched just two years ago by Students for Justice in Palestine
at the University of California, Berkeley, the divest-from-Israel
campaign has gathered steam at an unprecedented pace on college
campuses across the country. Campaigns are already under way at
about 50 universities, where petitioners urge the schools to remove
Israel-friendly companies from their investment portfolios.
Berkeley claims about 6,000 signatures from students, faculty and
staff. Ohio State Universitywhich began its petitions only
three months agoalready has 1,500. And the University of Massachusetts
Amherst campus got 350 signatures in two months. Other existing
petitions appear to average around 500 signatures; some schools
are just starting to seek signers.
Now campaign leaders are exploring ways they can take the drive
to the next level with additional conferences organized by a national
coalition of students from various universities. They also are trying
to raise enough funds to develop an international clearinghouse
for the campaign and a resource center for activists.
University of Illinois law professor Francis A. Boyle, credited
with suggesting the campaign when he called for divestment in a
November 2000 speech, says response has snowballed more quickly
than it did for a similar campaign against South African apartheid
in the 1980s.
This thing has taken off like wildfire, he says.
The professor, whose involvement in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict
began in 1967, has written and lectured extensively on international
law and politics. He says he likes to offer a call to action
when he speaks to show listeners ways they can help.
It took many years to organize South Africa, he says.
People need to be educated first.
This time, the internet has been a factor. Non-existent to the
public in the 1980s push against apartheid, today the Internet helps
spread the word of the divestment boycott and allows fellow students
to easily exchange information and solicit registrants for student
Based on a similarand eventually successfulcampaign
protesting the territorial segregation known as apartheid in South
Africa, the divest-from-Israel movement is a non-violent attempt
to educate people about the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict and
encourage them to refrain from dealing with companies that invest
in Israel. The hope is that economic sanctions will soften Israeli
intransigence in negotiating a peace settlement with the Palestinians
regarding the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Proponents of the current campaign say Israels occupation
of the mandated territory isolates Palestinians in the same way
apartheid separated the races in South Africa. Anti-apartheid leader
Bishop Desmond Tutu last summer publicly supported divestment as
one method to end the illegal Israeli occupation.
and Apartheid-era South Africa
Last fall, Washington, D.C. African-American talk show host Mahdi
Bray compared the Palestinian struggle to U.S. civil rights protests
and the struggle against apartheid during a speech at a divestment
conference in Michigan.
Activists believe the analogy to apartheid works in the campaigns
favor. The analogy makes it comprehensible to people familiar with
the issue of apartheid. In addition, economic sanctions are fairly
well understood, given the long-time U.S. sanction against Cuba
and at one time China. Students, unions, religious
leaders and consumers who boycotted South African goods were the
driving force against apartheid.
Boyle who was legal advisor to the Palestinian delegation
to the Middle East peace negotiations between 1991 and 1993says
hes not surprised that Berkeley was the first school to step
up to the plate with a petition urging the University of California
to divest. It was one of the schools that led the way in the anti-apartheid
Berkeley is always the vanguard of progressive thought in
America, says Boyle, who is of Irish descent.
The Students for Justice in Palestine campaign at Berkeley asks
for divestment until Israel complies with U.N. resolutions, withdraws
from the Occupied Palestinian Territories and gives refugees the
right of return.
Berkeley hosted a student conference in February 2001 that drew
500 participants. Last fall, a second student conference was held
at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. It, too, drew 500 supporters
(others were turned away due to space limitations) and led to the
idea of a national coalition.
This past January, about 25 activists from various campuses met
in Washington, D.C. to discuss a national approach to student conferences
and resource centers that would benefit the campaign without diluting
campus autonomy. A third conference is planned for Rutgers University
in New Jersey in the fall.
Uri Straussa Canadian graduate student from the University
of Massachusetts at Amherst whose mother is Israeliwas one
of them. He says the group will plan the Rutgers conference and
work to get media attention for it.
Divestment gives a focal point to the issue, he says.
It connects people. Campus media can focus on the progress
of the petition.
Speakers and position papers, while valuable in some settings,
dont have the same effect on a campus, he says.
But despite the campaigns achievements, challenges remain.
Not every campus approaches the campaign the same waynor uses
the same name for its student groups. Several campuses are organized
under Students for Justice in Palestine; the Michigan group is called
Allied Students Allied for Freedom & Equality. Some dont
have a formal name.
Campuses like Columbia only oppose investment in companies that
manufacture and sell arms. Others oppose all investment.
And assessing progress is difficult with no central entity to keep
track of petitions and total signatures.
Berkeley activist Will Youmans, a law student whose mother came
from Palestine, agreed that the effort can seem disorganized.
Activists in general are against hierarchy, he says.
Its a very localized effort.
But the decentralized nature, he says, also allows for flexibility
and diversity for college campuses.
Boyle says students at some schools have contacted him for advice
on how to structure their efforts.
It has to make sense for each campus, he says. I
always recommend looking at what was done regarding South Africa.
No one is reinventing the wheel, he says.
Other challenges are more complex.
Support for Israel
To most Americans, Yasser Arafat isnt the sympathetic figure
that Nelson Mandela was. And Israeli supporters are numerous in
the U.S.sometimes outnumbering conference attendees in opposing
divestmentwhereas apartheid defendants were a rare commodity.
Financially, university investments are larger and more diverse
than they were in the 1980s. Todays portfolios are likely
to include pension funds or mutual funds that invest in numerous
Boyle himself sees the difficulties this time around that werent
so evident in the fight against apartheid.
Yale has a tough corporate investment policy (to challenge),
Boyle says. Theyd have to sell everything off.
Boyle says one solution would be to enlist a financial planner
to set up an Israel-free investment fund.
That kind of alternative is needed to go to boards of directors
and pension funds to ask people to move their money, he says.
The new leaders emerging from the movement may be the ones to find
those alternatives. Already they are experimenting with ways to
get their message across.
Palestinian Feras Abou Galala, an Ohio State University graduate
engineering student, learned of the Michigan conference from a friend
there and became involved with the movement a short time later.
Ohio State, he says, has a very organized group of about
20 people who campaign tirelessly on behalf of the movement.
We went out every week for the whole (last) quarter to get
signatures, he says. We even knocked on doors in dorms.
Volunteers found they were sometimes faced with questions they
couldnt answer. So they met each week, researched the answers
to those questions and returned to the dorms to relay the results
of their work. They also built a database of frequently asked questions
and answers to assist other activists.
Its a good tactic to go back with answers, Abou
Galala says. It creates a relationship that helps people see
the point of the peaceful movement.
At Berkeley, Youmans thinks the program is going well. To date,
they have about 5,000 signatures.
The number of signers is good for just two years, Youmans
Hes confident that number will grow, especially now that
the Arab Defense Council in San Francisco and the Center for Policy
on Palestine are getting involved.
The Bay Area hasnt reached its peak, he says.
Less than 5% of the (University of California) system has
signed so far.
Youmans says the biggest opponent to the cause is apathy. Also
fear especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the Bush Administrations
targeted campaign against Arab American and American Muslims.
Some activists have been detained, making others hesitant to join
the effort. International students are afraid, he says.
But Berkeleys efforts have been inspirational for students
at other campuses.
The Berkeley conference inspired University of Maryland computer
science student Jawad Muaddi to help develop a petition on his College
I wasnt an activist before, he says.
Muaddi says the Maryland group tries to employ a personal touch,
taking the message directly to others rather than bringing in speakers
to lecture. And they are calling on that university to divest just
one portfolio that is invested in 16 companies doing business in
Its hard to explain what were doing in five minutes,
Muaddi says. If you can get a conversation going about it,
then people are more likely to support the effort.
At MIT, organizers went farther afield: they found alumni in Israel
willing to support their petition.
Despite the seemingly fragmented approach to the divestment campaign,
its gaining steam.
We know it will take a few years, Muaddi says. But
it makes people more attentive and shows them a link between the
university and the Middle East.
There certainly are precedents for political movements to start
on the college campus in this country, most notably in the 60s
and 70s era of anti-Vietnam war protests. Today, those voices
are reappearing with signs that read Dont attack Iraq
and other anti-war sentiments.
Should the U.S. involve itself in war in Iraq, theres no
telling where an anti-war campaign might lead. At the very least,
it might lead to a better understanding of the issues at hand, creating
new opportunities for the proponents of divestment.
Student groups are a great place to start, Muaddi says.
Other groups should probably take divestment off the campuses.
Maybe they will as student activists graduate.
I - Campus Activism
The following is a sampling of campuses where students, faculty
and staff can sign petitions asking for an end to university investment
in companies with interests in Israel:
Ohio State University
Penn State University
University of California, Berkeley
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
University of Maryland
University of Massachusetts
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
University of Pennsylvania
University of Texas, Austin
Virginia Commonwealth University
University Investments Targeted
- About $614 million in companies with Israeli interests
University of California
- Approximately $6.4 billion invested in companies with interests
University of Maryland
- Nine companies, representing about $40 million of university investments,
are targeted by activists
University of Michigan
- $150 million in companies that do business in Israel
II - Companies Targeted
Companies that conduct business with or in Israel include a broad
cross-section of the corporate world. Some student groups target
only those companies that provide military equipment or services;
others target any company with offices, stores or other interests
Among the major companies on targeted list are those below:
AOL Time Warner
AT&T Communications Inc.
A&W Root Beer
Compaq Computer Corp.
Deloitte & Touche
Hilton International Co.
Johnson & Johnson
Pratt & Whitney
Ralston Purina Co.
Robert Half International
Toys R Us