Supporters and opponents of a Student Association divestment resolution on Palestinian human rights are rallying support as the SA Senate prepares to vote on the measure Monday.
The resolution, which calls on the University to withdraw investments from 10 companies that supporters claim contribute to human rights abuses in Palestinian territories, has stirred debate on campus. The resolution’s sponsors said it is a show of support to Palestinians that is not meant to oppose Israel, but opponents said it over-simplifies the complicated issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations and hinders campus-wide discussion.
Groups of students on both sides of the debate packed senate student life committee hearings last week as the senators considered and approved the resolution by a vote of three to one, with three abstentions. Supporters and opponents are calling on students to lobby their senators with emails and fill the room at Monday’s senate meeting.
Henry Rosh, a representative of Students for Justice in Palestine, said dialogue surrounding the Israel-Palestine issue has been happening on campus for decades, but now the group is pushing for concrete measures to achieve their goals.
“We’ve had these conversations and not seen results,” Rosh said. “We need to stop talking, and it’s time to take action.”
Breaking down the resolution
The 10 companies named in the resolution include General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin and Motorola Solutions, which sponsors of the bill said have manufactured weapons dropped on Palestinian territories and provided equipment and resources that contribute to Palestinian oppression.
“We need to stop talking, and it’s time to take action.”
The resolution demands the University divest from these companies in its $1.57 billion financial foundation, known as its endowment. The University’s investments in stocks, bonds, real estate and other financial assets fund professorships, scholarships, construction projects and other priorities.
Officials do not publicly release information about what companies they invest in as part of the endowment, so it’s unclear if the University actually has investments in the companies named in the resolution.
Supporters of the bill said if the University withdraws investments from those companies, then it could pressure them to change their behavior and halt practices that harm Palestinians.
Last month, members of Divest This Time GW – a SJP break-off organization – delivered a letter to University President Steven Knapp asking him to acknowledge investment in 13 companies – 10 of which are named in the SA resolution – they said contributed to Palestinian human rights violations.
The members didn’t receive a University response and assumed GW has holdings in these companies, supporters of the resolution said.
From protest to policy
Sen. Keiko Tsuboi, ESIA-U, submitted the resolution to the student life committee, where it passed two committee hearings to move to the senate floor.
“The resolution is meant to reflect how our University is essentially contributing in a way, by not withholding financial support from these companies, to the suffering experienced by Palestinian students and their communities,” Tsuboi said.
Tsuboi said some students are hesitant about the resolution because they think it’s associated with the national Boycott, Divestments, Sanctions movement, a pro-Palestinian rights organization that has been accused of anti-Semitism and delegitimizing the state of Israel. But the resolution is not directly associated with the BDS movement and the legislation doesn’t call for divestment from Israeli companies, she said.
The goal of the resolution is to show that the University does not profit from Palestinian suffering, Tsuboi said.
She said one of the reasons she decided to propose the bill was that Palestinian students on campus are criticized and threatened for their political beliefs.
“We have Palestinian students on this campus, and there’s a reason why there’s somebody like me bringing this up as an ally versus them,” she said. “It’s because they feel unsafe on our campus and we need to acknowledge that.”
In the late 20th century, student activists nationwide demanded universities divest from companies that operated in apartheid South Africa.
The resolution is part of a movement on campuses across the country to create similar divestment resolutions. Student governments at more than 20 universities – including Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles – have passed resolutions that encourage administrators to divest from companies they say contribute to human rights abuses against Palestinians.
In the late 20th century, student activists nationwide demanded universities divest from companies that operated in apartheid South Africa. Divest This Time GW said the resolution follows in the tradition set by those movements.
At GW, student activists have also created campaigns calling on the University to divest from fossil fuel companies. In 2015, a resolution on fossil fuel divestment in SA elections passed with more than 70 percent of students in support, but officials have not yet acted on the demand.
A wave of backlash
The resolution has spawned controversy from predominantly Jewish and pro-Israel groups.
GW Together, an anti-BDS group, formed after several members of SJP held a die-in and sent a letter to the University asking them to divest from companies that supported human rights abuses in Palestine last month.
Shira Wolkenfeld, a representative of the group, said in an email that a senate vote is the wrong way to approach a complicated issue because it limits campus dialogue to only a few people.
She said the resolution is rooted in “unreliable sources” tying the targeted companies to human rights abuses against Palestinians.
The resolution cites United Nations accounts, which have been criticized by the U.S. government for having an anti-Israel slant.
“We urge our Student Association senators to think critically about the legislation before them and not to be swayed by rhetoric and simplification,” Wolkenfeld said. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated, and this resolution oversimplifies complexities and does not present the full picture.”
She said the issue is embedded in decades of discord and hostility between the two groups primarily about who has the right to control coveted territory in the region. The dispute is rooted in complex religious, political and ethnic tensions.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated, and this resolution oversimplifies complexities and does not present the full picture.”
GW College Republicans released a statement Friday that denounced the resolution, saying it would limit conversation about the issue on campus. Vice Chair Hunter Wilson said the resolution made some Jewish students feel unsafe on campus because although the bill targets companies, it also mentions actions by the Israeli government.
“This issue is bigger than a lot of us, and it’s troublesome to see that such a definite stance can be made in regards to this resolution,” he said.
SA prepares for big turnout
SA Executive Vice President Thomas Falcigno said he is still unsure what his opinion is on the resolution but will announce his views during Monday’s meeting. In the case of senate deadlock, Falcigno would cast the tie-breaking vote.
To prepare for large crowds expected at Monday’s meeting, Falcigno said he is considering moving the meeting to a larger room, mandating that students show a GWorld card to enter and changing the start time to allow more time for students to speak at public comment. When the resolution was debated in committee, he said students spoke at public comment for four hours.
“I knew the issue would be controversial. I knew it would be very heated, and it can be a very divisive issue,” he said.
SA President-elect Peak Sen Chua, who is currently a senator and a member of the student life committee, voted against the resolution in the committee meeting. Chua said he doesn’t believe that the senate is the appropriate venue to discuss such a complex issue.
“While I welcome the discussion around this resolution, I cannot in good conscience advocate for a resolution that does not align to the core mission of the SA,” he said in an email. “The Student Association must advocate for the entire student body, and this resolution does not do that.”
Liz Konneker contributed reporting.