The movement pushing college campuses to divest from companies profiting off of and contributing to human rights violations committed by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories is spreading across the United States.
In February 2009, Students for Justice in Palestine at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, claimed victory when the college’s board of trustees voted to divest from a number of companies, some of them involved with Israel, that are complicit in human rights violations. It was the first higher education institution in the U.S. to divest from companies doing business with the Israeli occupation. Since then, the call for divestment has spread to the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan Dearborn, and, most recently, the San Diego and Berkeley campuses at the University of California.
Now, a coalition at Georgetown University, located in the nation’s capital, is building a movement for the university to institute a policy for socially responsible investment (SRI) and to divest from companies that commit human rights violations. While the Georgetown, Divest! coalition is pushing for a broad SRI policy, the group focuses on Israel’s apartheid system and the 2008-2009 Gaza massacre.
The divestment campaigns on college campuses are part of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to pressure Israel into withdrawing from the occupied Palestinian territories, dismantling illegal settlements, and implementing the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The call for a BDS campaign against Israel originated from a 2005 initiative from a broad swath of Palestinian civil society.
I recently got a chance to interview sophomore history major and coalition member Jackson Perry about Georgetown’s nascent divestment campaign.
Alex Kane: Explain the ongoing campaign at Georgetown University and where the campaign stands now.
Jackson Perry: Over the last three weeks, we’ve been engaging with the university on the issue of socially responsible investment in general, because three weeks ago the campaign discovered the university has no policies whatsoever for investing in a socially responsible manner. For various reasons, like the fact that we’re a Jesuit university, we’ve decided to push on that issue because it’s a point we can make inroads in, and opens up the conversation about Israel and Palestine to a broader audience on the university campus.
Over the past two weeks we’ve been pushing them on that, and getting press, and talking to student groups on that. So, where we stand now: the university has said that there will be no policies of socially responsible investment, which we don’t think is their final response on the matter, we think it’s more of them trying to wait us out until summer. So, they’re hoping that we go away, but we won’t, and going forward this summer, we’re going to be doing extensive planning for what we’re going to be doing to start the year to continue raising awareness on campus, to continue putting pressure on the university, and we’re going to have a full court press of multiple paths, like building up our coalition, getting non-campus organizations interested, like the Society of Jesus, and, Georgetown has a campus in Doha, Qatar, and starting this summer we’re going to build up a base of support there. Basically, because we think that without any framework for socially responsible investment at Georgetown, nothing can happen on the Israel/Palestine front in particular, we’re going to have a full court press at the start of September of going to the university and getting them to establish processes for socially responsible investment that include a process for students to raise concerns about the university’s investments.
AK: What channels are you using to push the campaign? Is there student government support, or is it just solely pressure on the administration?
JP: Well, we already have student government support. We gave a presentation about the lack of socially responsible investing, and the student government passed a resolution of supporting policies of socially responsible investment at Georgetown, but we haven’t talked to them or engaged them beyond that, that’s a step further down the road. We have six student groups as part of our coalition, and part of our goal is to do a more systematic, broader outreach on the issue, and once we have more student group support we can get more manpower.
Also, what we’ve discovered is that the more we talk to people, and actually get people to listen to what we’re saying, instead of listening to what they hear on television or on the internet, then it changes their mind about it. So, the biggest thing right off the bat is educating the campus on what we’re about.
AK: So, is the broad emphasis on SRI going to lead into focusing specifically on investment in Israel?
JP: Basically, what happened is that a month ago, we thought the university had policies of socially responsible investment, because that’s what their website said, and that’s what their investment policy stated. But after meeting with the administration, they said that those policies are outdated, and essentially admitted they have no policies of socially responsible investment. So, now, we think that not only is this an inroad to sort of get the conversation going, and it’s a weak spot that we can exploit strategically, but we also think once this system is in place, it will make the discussion and the pressure for divestment from these companies that profit from human rights violations much more mainstream, and something that can become a part of the university’s conversation, rather than, as we’ve seen at other campaigns on this campus, they’re on the radar for a couple of weeks, then they go away, and we don’t want that to happen at Georgetown.
AK: Have you done research on what specific companies Georgetown is involved with that commit human rights violations?
JP: Well, because Georgetown is a university, they don’t have to disclose their investments, so no one beyond a few senior administrators in the investment office know what companies Georgetown is invested in. We know that they contract with Caterpillar because we’re constructing a new science center so there are Caterpillar bulldozers there everyday. But, what we’ve said is that we have these examples of eight companies, and if you’re invested in these companies, divest from them, and if you’re not invested in them, promise not to invest in them in the future. Along with that, we think the committee for socially responsible investment that we want set up would, in the future, act if concerns are raised, and that committee would make sure the university continues to invest in a socially responsible manner after a divestment campaign victory.
AK: Has there been any organized pushback yet?
JP: No, there’s only been individuals who expressed their disagreement with what we want, and then a couple of editorials in the paper have called us misguided. But, it’s very interesting: here at Georgetown, Students for Justice in Palestine and other Palestinian related groups are much more organized than their ideological opposites. So, there hasn’t been an organized response.
AK: What’s been the general response of the student body on campus to the campaign to create SRI policies?
JP: When we talk to people, and we spend two minutes talking to them about what’s going on, then they realize not only is it wrong that Georgetown doesn’t have these policies, but also that the way the university is responding to us demonstrate that they don’t care about student concerns at all. And I think another big thing is that, to this point, we’ve been very measured and moderate in the way we approach the university, and I think people like the fact that we aren’t being extreme. We’ve demonstrated the seriousness of our arguments, and I think the fact that, when you roll out something that’s a 50-minute presentation that’s very detailed, it convinces people. As we continue to educate people, and the fact that SRI is something that can be done, it’s something that is done everywhere in America, opinions will start to change, especially if the university continues to stonewall us completely. That’s going to make people start to think about the issue more.
AK: Do people’s response to the campaign change if you mention Israel and Palestine?
JP: So far, there’s been the two responses. For example, when the student senate was debating the resolution on SRI, there are people who say, ‘I support socially responsible investment, but I don’t know much about Israel/Palestine.’ There’s a lot of people who think that it’s a political issue, and not a human rights issue, and something that can be discussed and have a dialogue about, but actually taking a stance, it’s very difficult for people to do. And I think it’s particularly the case at Georgetown, because in the student body, there are a lot of people who want to be future Senators and Heads of State. So, there’s an atmosphere of not wanting to commit to something that people will see as radical.
AK: How do you connect this struggle to the larger boycott, divestment, and sanctions struggle, especially the ones happening on campuses across the U.S.?
JP: One of the guys who founded our campaign worked on the Stanford divestment campaign three or four years ago. Every month or so, one of our guys talks to people at Berkeley, at Hampshire, at UCSD, and so there’s definitely sort of a connection. Every time we talk about this campaign at Georgetown, we talk about how it’s happening at other places. It’s a reinforcement for people who don’t know that it’s happening elsewhere, that it’s part of a movement that’s growing. So, we try to emphasize that there are students across the country who are concerned about their university’s investments.