Updated: April 6, 2017 at 3:00 p.m.
Members of a Palestinian student organization want the University to divest from corporations that profit from the occupation of Palestine.
Last week during Palestine Awareness Week, members of Students for Justice in Palestine held a series of events, including a die-in protest in Kogan Plaza and a keynote address by civil rights activist Angela Davis, as part of the divestment campaign. The group has sent a letter to officials and started a petition calling for the University to join the movement for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions – which encourages nonviolent methods of pressuring Israel to stop occupying Palestine.
So far, no universities in the country have successfully divested, although multiple student organizations at other institutions have called for divestment.
“In the 1980s, GW failed to heed humanitarian calls to divest from apartheid South Africa,” according to a release from the group. “Now GW has the opportunity to avoid repeating the mistake of supporting an apartheid regime by divesting from corporations that profit off of the occupation of Palestine, which prevents Palestinians from accessing basic necessities and strips them of their rights.”
GW’s $1.57 billion financial foundation is invested in a number of different industries, like real estate, though officials have historically declined to disclose details about the investments. Endowment funds are used to finance things like professorships, scholarships and construction projects on campus.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said in an email that officials received the letter from Students for Justice in Palestine about divestment last week.
Csellar said managing the endowment involves balancing current spending needs with maintaining the endowment’s purchasing power for the future.
“Achieving these objectives requires appropriate asset allocation, careful implementation of investment strategies and vigilant risk management,” she said.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Hatchet, includes a list of 13 companies, including Hewlett-Packard, General Electric and Boeing that the group says are “complicit in and profiting from apartheid policies in the occupied Palestinian territories.”
“Our University claims to dedicate itself to furthering human well-being while potentially investing in companies that assist the Israeli military in tactics, such as detainment, torture, killing and restriction of freedom of movement, that contradict this value,” according to the letter.
The letter asked University President Steven Knapp to respond by March 22 to confirm that the University invests in any of the named companies. A representative from SJP said they sent the letter to Knapp on March 10.
Csellar declined to provide information on the endowment’s holdings as they relate to Israel and Palestine, or if the University has an official stance on divestment for political or humanitarian reasons. She said the University continues to support student organizations, like SJP and the Jewish Student Association, through the Center for Student Engagement.
Last spring, the Board of Trustees rejected a student call for divestment from fossil fuels, saying that divestment is not part of the University’s investment strategy.
Maryam Alhassani, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said the group is now looking for students to sign a divestment petition to bring to the Student Association in hopes that they will pass legislation supporting divestment. The coalition does not yet know of any senators that would push to pass the legislation, she said.
Although Palestine Awareness Week ended, Alhassani said students who participated in the die-in protest will continue holding educational events to show student support for divestment.
“If the University sees a lot of support from students, if the SA sees a lot support from students, it will pressure them to divest,” she said.
SJP members also joined protesters at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference last week. Alhassani said that seeing the amount of support, especially from Jewish people, was encouraging.
The Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions and pro-Palestine movements have been criticized for anti-semitism, but some groups have highlighted Jewish support for the cause.
“We have seen other organizations such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace in America that support the Palestinian cause,” Alhassani said.
IfNotNow does not take an official stance on BDS, according to the group’s website.
“We do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood,” the site reads. “We work together to end American Jewish support for the occupation.”
Jewish Voice for Peace, however, does support the Palestinian call for divestment.
“Jewish Voice for Peace endorses the call from Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) as part of our work for freedom, justice and equality for all people,” according to the group’s website. “We believe that the time-honored, non-violent tools proposed by the BDS call provide powerful opportunities to make that vision real.”
Some student groups on campus have spoken out against the call for divestment.
The leaders of GW Hillel sent an email to members last week condemning the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions campaign. The email linked to a new Facebook group, GW Together, a group that says they promote inclusive dialogue and oppose the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions movement.
GW Together – which is made up of students who are part of JStreet U, GW for Israel, Student Alliance for Israel and the Jewish Student Association – released a statement the day after the SJP protest.
“The anti-normalization policies of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement prohibit any kind of academic debate dialogue and discussion,” students from the group said in the statement.
Leaders of the group said the issues being raised by SJP are important to discuss but that the SA should not address the Divest This Time campaign.
“The Divest This Time campaign simplifies a longstanding conflict, and goes against the values of The George Washington University,” a representative from the group said in a private Facebook message.
This post was updated to reflect the following corrections:
Due to a reporting error, The Hatchet incorrectly quoted Maryam Alhassani as saying organizations IfNotNow and Jewish Voice For Peace support the BDS movement. IfNotNow does not have an official stance, while Jewish Voice for Peace has expressed support. The quote is now correct and this information is clarified. The Hatchet also incorrectly spelt Alhassani’s first name. It is now correct. We regret these errors.