Hampshire students defend their victory

Gary Lapon reports that pro-Israel apologists are putting pressure on Hampshire College to back away from its historic divestment decision.

February 20, 2009

UNDER PRESSURE from pro-Israel apologists led by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, administrators at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., issued a “statement of clarification” about the recent decision to divest from six corporations that profited from and supported Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine.

But student activists aren’t going to quietly accept Hampshire’s shameful attempt to wriggle out of a decision the college should be proud of.

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Hampshire announced in a February 12 press release that they had succeeded in pressuring Hampshire’s board of trustees to divest from companies involved in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Palestinians and their supporters around the world, including Noam Chomsky, Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire, Howard Zinn and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, greeted the news with joy.

“This is a monumental and historic step in the struggle for Palestinian equality, self- determination and peace in the Holy Land by nonviolent means,” wrote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a leader in the struggle against South African apartheid, in a message of support sent to members of Hampshire SJP.

“I see what these students have accomplished as a replica of the support of their college of our struggle against apartheid in South Africa,” he continued, in reference to Hampshire’s place of prestige as the first institution of higher education to divest from South Africa. “Hampshire College’s decision to divest should be a guiding example to all institutions of higher learning.”

But within hours of SJP’s announcement, the pro-Israel counteroffensive began. Dershowitz, a virulent supporter of Israel, called Matan Cohen and Brian Van Slyke, two members of SJP, to threaten an international campaign to divest from Hampshire College–a threat that carries some sting for Hampshire, which is a small institution with a history of financial difficulties.

Dershowitz is notorious for his relentless personal and professional attacks on those who speak out against Israel’s crimes. In 2007, for example, Norman Finkelstein, a renowned scholar and an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies, was denied tenure at DePaul University after Dershowitz put pressure on faculty and the administration.

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FACED WITH Dershowitz’s threats, three Hampshire administrators–Board of Trustees Chair Sigmund Roos, President Ralph Hexter, and Vice President and Dean of Faculty Aaron Berman–issued a joint “statement of clarification,” presumably to appease their pro-Israel critics and downplay this important milestone in the struggle for justice for Palestinians.

The statement admits that while the investment review that led to the decision to divest “was undertaken…to address a petition from a student group, Students for Justice in Palestine…the decision [to divest from the State Street fund] expressly did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country.”

In trying to dissociate Hampshire’s divestment decision from the Palestinian cause, the statement asserts that in addition to corporations like Caterpillar and United Technologies–which were among the six targeted by SJP for their support of the Israeli occupation–“the State Street fund included 200-plus companies engaged in multiple violations of the college’s investment policy.”

But the minutes of the university’s own Committee at Hampshire on Investment Responsibility (CHOIR), a subcommittee of the Board of Trustees’ investment committee, proves this to be a deception at best.

After two SJP presentations in 2008, CHOIR’s own minutes recorded a vote “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.”

In its own statement, SJP points out:

SJP was explicitly asked by the administration what companies to avoid in the future in terms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This fact illustrates that the Israeli occupation and SJP’s work were undoubtedly the primary reasons for the decision to divest.

Furthermore, the violations of the other 200 companies…were only researched days before the investment committee’s decision to divest…For eight and a half months, the only specific companies in the State Street fund that were discussed were the six companies SJP targeted.

These facts prove that the decision was made on the grounds of the six companies’ involvement in the occupation of Palestine. We can only assume the reason the Board and administration chose to depoliticize this decision is because of the volatile nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This victory has inspired activists on campuses across the country and has the potential to help spur the movement for divestment from Israel’s occupation and oppression of Palestinians.

As Omar Barghouti of the Palestinian Committee for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel said in a statement of solidarity to Hampshire SJP:

What worries Dershowitz et al. in the Zionist establishment in the U.S. to the extreme is the fact that this is a successful precedent attained through a persistent, committed, well thought out and intelligent student campaign…

There is no reason why Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley or Columbia students cannot emulate this success on their own respective campuses, Dershowitz must be thinking. And that would effectively announce the beginning of the end of Israel’s impunity in the US with all the repercussion such a transformation would lead to on the ground in Palestine.

Those who seek justice for Palestinians and support the right to speak truth to power should stand with Hampshire SJP to defend their victory so that, in the words of Hampshire SJP, “this decision will pave the way for other institutions of higher learning in the U.S. to take similar stands.”

What you can do

Contact Hampshire College President Ralph Hexter at 413-559-5521 or rhexter [at] hampshire.edu and let him know that you support divestment. You’ll find a sample statement of support on the Hampshire SJP Web site.

To bring members of Hampshire SJP to speak on your campus or to learn more about how you can start or join a BDS campaign, e-mail hampshiresjp [at] gmail.com with “SPEAKING” in the subject line.

The Hampshire SJP site tells how to donate to Hampshire in support of divestment. To learn more about the movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions for Palestine, visit the Global BDS Movement Web site.

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