Do The Right Thing: Hampshire’s Selective Divestment Movement

By Ellen Cantarow

Dear friends,

I am so excited to report to you that Hampshire College has become the first US college… to divest from Israeli occupation, just as they were the first to divest from South African apartheid in 1977! You can read all about it to your heart’s content at the Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) website:

But Hampshire SJP…need[s] your help! The Hampshire administration has distanced itself from the decision, claiming that the board’s decision to divest was a broader one, not tied to any particular political cause. The Hampshire community knows better. Alan Dershowitz also knows better, and has threatened Hampshire with his own divestment campaign against the college. It seems the administration is trying, as Alan Dershowitz has said, to play to both sides. Let’s help them be clear, by writing to them, congratulating them, and encouraging them to be proud of their groundbreaking decision!

— Hannah Mermelstein, e-mail Sunday, February 15, 2009.

After four days of tracking the controversy that followed a February 11 Hampshire student press release (“Hampshire College becomes first college in U.S. to divest from Israeli Occupation!”) I found Mermelstein’s letter in my virtual mail-box. It seemed particularly apt. In 2005 Mermelstein co-founded, with 1987 Hampshire graduate Dunya Alwan, the organization “Birthright Unplugged” (see (A counterpoint to Israel’s well-heeled “Birthright Israel” tours for Jewish youth, “Birthright Unplugged” offers guided West Bank tours for — mainly but not solely — younger Jews.)

Much educational history on this very small, very liberal New England campus (at least a decade’s worth), preceded the efforts of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), founded in 2006, to get Hampshire to divest from six companies that aid and profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — Caterpillar, ITT Corporation, Terex, United Technologies, and General Electric. (For information about how these corporations violate Palestinian human rights see For details about SJP’s long educational campaign see the “Coda” at the end of this article.)

A major precedent was the college’s 1976 divestment from Apartheid South Africa (it was the first US college/university to do so). In academic year 2006-07, Hampshire communications director Elaine Thomas announced, “With our Policy on Socially Responsible Investing, we have no investments with companies that do business with the Sudanese regime.” One concludes that Hampshire isn’t loath to name state names — except, apparently, when it comes to Israel. (See Robert Fisk’s “Free Speech? Not When it Comes to the State of Israel,” The Independent, March 12, 2006.)

The very morning the students sent out their press release, Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz phoned each of the students whose names appeared on the statement, threatening his own campaign of divestment from Hampshire.

That afternoon three administrators, including the head of the Board of Trustees and the college’s president, sent alumni and the general public a “Statement of Clarification Regarding Trustees’ Actions on College Investments.” According to the “clarification,” the board of trustees had examined one particular fund and found over 200 offending companies. Divestment from them, declared the statement, “did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country.”

After the “clarification” hit the Internet, there descended — at least in some press quarters — a great silence. (London’s Guardian, for instance, did not release a story expected last week.) Even this writer dithered, trying to make sense of who did what when and why, which “side of the story” was “right,” and why it mattered anyway. Hampshire had divested from six companies that ravage the occupied Palestinian territories. So what if it was true that Hampshire hadn’t divested only from these companies, but from over 200 nasty others?

But it does matter, and here are facts: the board’s decision to divest from these companies followed two years of careful SJP on-campus campaigning, culminating in the petition mentioned by the “clarification” — an “Institutional Statement” signed by 800 people including faculty and over half the student body — urging divestment from the six companies.

That SJP moved Hampshire to divest from the six is something claimed not only by the students, but mentioned in the administrators’ “clarification.” In the fourth of five paragraphs comes a whisper: “The review of the…fund [containing the over 200 companies with offensive practices] was undertaken…to address a petition from a student group, Students for Justice in Palestine.”

Twice last May, according to an SJP rebuttal of the administration disclaimer, SJP explained to the board of trustees the particulars of each company’s violation of the college’s investment policy. At the second of these meetings, May 16, SJP presented the “Institutional Statement” to the board. In August a subcommittee of the board voted “to recommend to the investment committee that Hampshire College divest of the following six companies: Caterpillar, Terex, Motorola, ITT, General Electric, United Technologies based on full consideration of the presentation by SJP.” (The final quote is directly from the subcommittee’s minutes.) SJP asserts that for eight and a half months the only companies in question were these: the 194-plus were a hasty afterthought.

“In sum,” says SJP, “[A] week ago Hampshire College was invested in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Today, the college is no longer complicit in the funding of this injustice. This is an irrefutable fact and a historical victory that calls for both celebration and support.”

Selective Divestment

SJP’s campaign was one of selective divestment. This can’t be repeated enough. (Of course B’nai Brith’s publication, “JTA,” still proclaimed in a headline last week that the school had divested “from Israel.” Similarly, Dershowitz’s question to the students he phoned was whether Hampshire had…you got it: “divested from Israel.”)

According to 21-year-old Brian Van Slyke, Hampshire junior and student member of Hampshire’s Board of Trustees, SJP was constantly at pains to get the student body to understand the difference between selective divestment from some companies that do business with Israel’s occupation, and blanket divestment from the state of Israel. “A lot of people on campus came to understand [the difference] and therefore supported us. Those who had thought we wanted to divest from the entire state of Israel came to support us when we made clear this was not our intent.”

Says 21-year-old junior, Jay Cassano, “There was a lot of internal debate about how to frame, and what to target for divestment. Ultimately we decided on selective divestment…[I]t’s difficult politically and logistically to wage a blanket campaign against Israel. No one’s ever called for complete divestment from the United States for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.”

Matan Cohen, one of two Israelis in SJP (Cohen co-founded Israel’s non-violent Anarchists against the Wall), adds: “We thought it would be smart to prove that these companies stood [against] the college’s policies on record. Also, it would be much clearer to our community to divest from these companies. It’s easily proven and hard to argue against. Not many people would say to you, ‘I have no problem with my money going to cluster bombs.'”

It’s good that Hampshire College has a socially-responsible investment policy (few US institutions of higher learning do). It’s also good that the board of trustees, having divested from the original six corporations, saw fit to divest from 194 offensive others. But it’s a shame that the college won’t stand behind its landmark decision. Not only has the work of its courageous, intelligent students helped it fulfill its investment mandate. The students — and the college they represent — have taken a remarkable stand against terrible injustice in the face of enormous intimidation and censorship. This era is one of neo-McCarthyism, with Daniel Pipes, the David Project, Stand with Israel, Alan Dershowitz and others playing the role of the nation’s Un-Israeli Activities Committees.

SJP and Hampshire have also taken a stand for the rule of law. In 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that the annexation wall, its construction enabled by Caterpillar Corporation, was illegal. International law (including the Fourth Geneva Convention) requires occupiers to protect the populations they occupy, and forbid them to settle on occupied land. The US Arms Export and Control Act requires that governments receiving US weapons use them only for self-defense. The six corporations dumped by Hampshire are complicit with and profit from the occupation by supplying instruments of mass destruction used by Israel against a captive population. These include Caterpillar’s bulldozers as well as a wide range of weaponry and sophisticated electronics supplied by the other five companies.

Since Israel and the US have not complied with the rule of law, the only recourse is nonviolent protest, including boycott, divestment and sanctions. SJP and Hampshire have taken a very brave first step in a struggle that continues on 22 campuses across the US (see the listing here) and within the UK, South Africa, and Australia.

(Readers may follow Hampshire’s events at The students are requesting letters of support: send them to hampshiresjp [at] The college is under enormous pressure and the students are soliciting donations to help Hampshire survive attacks against it. At, see “Select a gift area,” select “General endowment.” In “Notes,” write: “Because of the efforts of SJP.”)


SJP’s two-year-long campaign featured over 27 educational activities. These included weekly film screenings; lectures by Palestinians and Israelis; an emergency candlelight vigil and poetry reading for over 120 who had died in Gaza and eight Israeli students who had died in Jerusalem; a facsimile annexation wall erected on the library lawn; dialogues among members of Hampshire’s Jewish community, its Jewish Student Union, and Union of Progressive Zionists; a five-college Western Massachusetts protest against Israel’s assaults on Gaza. (For a “time-line” of all these see “History of SJP” at

Little of this was initially easy. “We had lots of resistance from Jewish students who thought we were putting our message out too forcefully,” says 22-year-old Kanya D’Almeida, a junior. “We had open forums, specific events for Jewish students who thought there anti-Semitism was involved. We made a space for people to approach us, we always had literature. We had tables outside of the dining hall and other buildings. We’ve always tried to be accessible.”

SJP presentations to the board of trustees included a 45-minute power point that demonstrated, says Matan Cohen, “how all the companies violate both our investment policy, and more broadly [Palestinians’] human rights and [commit] war crimes in Palestine. We used reports from the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about house demolitions. For instance, Caterpillar profits from the clear violation of human rights, and is aware that selling D9 bulldozers to Israel is paramount to facilitating violations of international law. Hence these companies are more than silently complicit; they are direct beneficiaries of the occupation. Therefore they should be targeted as those who allow occupation to keep on going.”

It probably didn’t hurt that two Israeli Jews were central in its activities. 20-year-old sophomore, Matan Cohen, co-founder of Israel’s non-violent Anarchists against the Wall, which tries to protect West Bank Palestinians, has been arrested “numerous times” for participating in nonviolent protests. He has been investigated by Israel’s secret service. In his words, he’s “the first person to be denied service in the army.” Another SJP member, Noam Bahat, spent five years in Israeli prison for conscientious objection to service in the occupied territories. But the group is multi-ethnic and includes Jews and non-Jews, Palestinians and Israelis. For this writer the campaign illustrates an exemplary collective effort. (For moving statements about it all, hear “Voices of Divestment” at www.hsjp.)

Ellen Cantarow has written about Israel and Palestine since 1979. She can be reached at ecantarow [at]

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