Hampshire Is First to Divest

by Gary Lapon / February 13th, 2009

The Hampshire College Board of Trustees voted to transfer assets from a fund that invests in corporations that contribute to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, making Hampshire the first institution of higher education in the U.S. to divest.

A range of organizations came out in Amherst, Mass., on February 7 in solidarity with the people of Gaza. (SW)

A range of organizations came out in Amherst, Mass., on February 7 in solidarity with the people of Gaza. (SW)

This historic decision came as a result of from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group formed at Hampshire in 2006. According to a statement from Sigmund Roos, chair of the Board of Trustees, the board reviewed the college”s investments to address a petition from SJP.

Among the corporations that Hampshire will divest from are United Technologies, which produces Blackhawk helicopters and engines for F-15 and F-16 fighter jets that Israel uses to kill Palestinians, and Caterpillar, which supplies Israel with bulldozers that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) uses to destroy Palestinian homes, orchards and olive groves in clearing land for illegal settlements and the “Separation Barrier” apartheid wall.

The petition in support of divestment was signed by over 800 Hampshire students, faculty and alumni (on a campus with under 1,500 students). It was the product of a two-year campaign that included educational events such as film screenings and lectures, “mock walls” simulating life in the occupied West Bank, and interactive forums.

SJP explained the reasons for its actions in a statement:

Traditionally, Hampshire College has advocated for the oppressed. In 1977, Hampshire College was the first college in the U.S. to divest from apartheid South Africa. In 2001, Hampshire was the first college to object to the war in Afghanistan.

In this spirit and in light of the fact that the Israeli occupation is the longest ongoing occupation since World War II, we state our objection to the oppression of the Palestinian people. The Hampshire community hereby declares its commitment to work toward the end of this occupation. Furthermore, we call upon Israel to end its policies of discrimination and to respect international law and Palestinian rights, including the right to self-determination. We support the Palestinian right to resist the occupation in accordance with international law.

In recent weeks, the SJP at Hampshire joined with students from area colleges and the community in the recently formed Pioneer Valley Coalition for Palestine, which organized protests against the Israeli bombing and ground assault in Gaza that killed over 1,300 people, including hundreds of children. The protests, on January 10 and February 7, drew hundreds of people each time.

The banner at the front of the February 7 march proclaimed “From Amherst to Gaza: Abolish Racism.” That was a reference to the “Justice for Jason” movement against the prosecution of University of Massachusetts Amherst Jason Vassell for defending himself from racist attackers. It was also meant to express the links between racism against African Americans and the Islamophobia used to justify the occupation of Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The rallies were the largest antiwar actions in Amherst in recent years and were heavily attended by Arabs and Muslims. Student activists from SJP, Palestine solidarity organizations on other local campuses, the Campus Antiwar Network, the UMass Muslim Students Association and the International Socialist Organization added their voices to the call for divestment from Israel.

SJP hopes their success will be an inspiration and a call to action for others who support justice for the people of Palestine. With students occupying buildings and winning concessions in support of Palestine across Britain–and now in the U.S. at the University of Rochester, divestment at Hampshire College is an important victory for a growing movement.

Building a movement that calls on U.S. institutions to divest from Israel is a key component of the struggle for justice for the people of Palestine.

The ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 to make possible to foundation of the state of Israel and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that began in 1967 have created a horrific reality for Palestinians, which anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu described after a 2003 visit as “much like what happened to us Black people in South Africa.”

Israel”s illegal occupation and slaughter of innocents would not be possible without the vast funding and political support it receives from the U.S. government. Israel has been the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid for years–a total of more than $100 billion since 1948, over half of which is military aid.

Hampshire College”s divestment of funds from Israel has set a precedent for a movement that could play an important role in ending apartheid in Israel.

Hampshire played a similar leading role in the struggle against apartheid South Africa. In 1977, students in the Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa occupied the college”s administrative offices. They won their demands, and Hampshire became the first U.S. college to divest from apartheid South Africa.

By 1982, similar struggles won divestment at other colleges and universities, including the nearby Umass Amherst, the University of Wisconsin, Ohio State University and the entire University of California system (which withdrew $3 billion in investments). By 1988, over 150 institutions had divested from South Africa.

By the end of the 1980s, as well, dozens of cities, states and towns across the U.S. had put in place some form of economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Inspired by the resistance of Black South Africans, the U.S. movement pressured Congress to pass (over a veto by President Ronald Reagan) sanctions against the racist regime. The solidarity movements around the world provided important support to the struggle of Black South Africans that defeated apartheid.

Hampshire College”s role in the campus anti-apartheid movement was an inspiration and a tool for SJP”s movement for divestment from corporations that support Israeli apartheid, according to SJP member Brian Van Slyke. “That Hampshire was the first college to divest from apartheid South Africa was really a rallying cry for us on this campus,” he said.

Hampshire SJP is hosting a rally outside the campus library at Noon on February 13 to celebrate this historic victory and have an open discussion about the next steps for the movement for justice in Palestine.

According to Van Slyke, these include defending this gain by “getting the word out to other activists and community organizers” to “make sure that people like [rabid pro-Israel supporter] Alan Dershowitz don”t succeed in smearing us or shutting us down.” SJP members plan to continue organizing to push for Hampshire to provide resources for an exchange with Palestinian students.

SJP has received numerous invitations from activists on other campuses and is considering sending members on a tour to share the story of their victory and the lessons they”ve learned to inform and inspire other students to push for and win divestment from Israel.

“SJP has proven that student groups can organize, rally and pressure their schools to divest from the illegal occupation,” SJP said in a press release. “The group hopes that this decision will pave the way for other institutions of higher learning in the U.S. to take similar stands.”

Gary Lapon is an activist and political cartoonist in Western Massachusetts. He can be reached at: glapon [at] gmail.com. Read other articles by Gary.

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