Stanford Students Urge University to Not Invest in Companies That Violate Palestinian Human Rights

UPDATE: (12:10 AM EST) Students are in the process of debating this bill, still no word on final outcome.

UPDATE #2: (6:45 AM EST) After a long night of debate, the divestment bill ultimately did not pass the student senate. However, students passed a separate resolution
expressing its firm stance against investment in companies that cause “substantial social injury.”

Here's the full press release: In a powerful show of solidarity, over 75 Stanford students turned out Tuesday evening to express support for the campaign calling for Stanford University’s Board of Trustees to divest from a set of companies that violate international law and abuse human rights in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The students hailed over the two dozen student groups, including the NAACP, Stanford Students for Queer Liberation, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), Stanford Says No to War, Asian American Student Association, the Stanford Labor Action Coalition, and the Black Student Union. These were among the 10 student groups that spoke strongly in favor of divestment at a Senate meeting the previous week.

While the divestment bill put forward by Students for Palestinian Equal Rights did not pass, the Associated Students of Stanford University Undergraduate Senate passed a separate resolution expressing its firm stance against investment in companies that cause “substantial social injury.” It further called on the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing to review the University’s investments to ensure compliance with the University’s Statement on Investment Responsibility.

Inspired by the words of support they received from all corners of the globe, including from Nobel Peace Laureates Desmond Tutu and Mairead Maguire, Rogers Waters of Pink Floyd, Alice Walker, Jewish Voice for Peace, and a coalition of 86 Palestinian university elected student councils and youth organizations, the 1500 individuals, including over 1000 students, who have signed the Stanford divestment petition will continue to push forward in their efforts to end Stanford’s complicity in human rights violations in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

In moments like this, we recall the wise words of Nelson Mandela: “there is no easy walk to
freedom anywhere and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintops of our desires.” While the summit remains elusive, the climb continues.

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On Tuesday night at 7 p.m., the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) will address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by voting on a divestment bill presented by Stanford Students for Palestinian Equal Rights (SPER). This is part of a "selective divestment campaign focused on multinational companies with explicit ties to human rights and international law violations in Palestine," according to Stanford student activists Anna McConnell and Kristian Davis Bailey. 

The bill calls on Stanford University's Board of Trustees to use four criteria to determine whether to divest from a certain company. SPER's bill also calls for immediate divestment from Caterpillar, Riwal, and Veolia, which violate the criteria. According to McConnell and Bailey, the criteria are:

1) Does the company facilitate acts of collective punishment?

2) Does the company operate in Israeli-only settlements in the West Bank?

3) Does the company support the 'separation barrier' that annexes Palestinian land in the West Bank?

4) Does the company engage in practices that institutionally discriminate against individuals or groups?

In a short amount of time, SPER's campaign drew support from a number of well-known activists and organizations. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, author Alice Walker, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Jewish and queer activist Sherry Wolf, Jewish Voices for Peace, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, and 86 Palestinian student councils and organizations wrote powerful statements supporting the Stanford divestment bill. The Stanford divestment bill is immensely important because it is a means to end to a grave injustice.

Desmond Tutu's letter reads as follows:

For decades, Israel has maintained a brutal, immoral, and illegal occupation of Palestinian land. In the West Bank, Israeli settlements gobble Palestinian land as Israeli soldiers occupy the territory. Settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights increased exponentially over the past 40 years. In 2012, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank exceeded 350,000. These settlements violate international law, yet Israel continues to build them. 

Other Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians, which are part of a system to oppress an indigenous population, include regular violence against Palestinians from Israeli soldiers and settlers, indefinite detention, torture, targeted killing, destruction of homes and property, and curtailed freedom of movement due to checkpoints and the Israeli separation wall — a wall the International Court of Justice deemed illegal under international law. Moreover, Israel racially discriminates Palestinians through practices such as separate bus lines, which is highly reminiscent of Jim Crow laws in the American South. 

While Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it maintains a crippling blockade over the territory; one that amounts to collective punishment, a violation of international law. Israel controls Gaza's air, sea, borders, restricts necessary humanitarian aid, launches frequent air strikes, and military incursions, such as Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, which killed over 1,400 and more than 150 Palestinians (many of whom were civilians) respectively. Despite Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, it maintains "effective control" over the territory, which means Gaza is still occupied. 

As a Stanford alumnus (class of 2010), seeing the widespread support for this bill is inspiring. Such support was unimaginable even a few years ago. When I was an undergrad, I was involved in the antiwar movement, as co-founder and president of Stanford Says No to War (one of the group's supporting the bill), and supported campus divestment efforts. I've attended senate meetings to pressure the body to take a stand on issues related to U.S. wars and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From my experience, I know that if there's anything the undergraduate senate loathes addressing, it's contentious political issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

What was always annoying, though, was how the issue was portrayed on campus. The dominant discourse was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict amounted to some far-off conflict between two sides who deeply hated each other and could never get along. As a result, many students will disengage from the issue and say things like "Both sides are wrong." That mentality is summed up by Esquire's Charles Pierce, who said: "I would like to have an opinion on this continual bloodletting that didn't sound banal but, goddammit, I'm out of them. I am thoroughly sick of both sides here." It's understandable many would feel that way. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a depressing situation and ignoring it is an easy way out. 

But the disengagement and blaming of both sides is problematic, as it lets the United States government off the hook. While, technically, there's blood on both Israeli and Palestinian hands (Hamas is no group of angels), it's not a conflict driven by two equally warring sides. It's a conflict between a colonizer (Israel) and a colonized population (Palestinians) where the colonizer gets massive, unconditional support from the world's major superpower — the United States. 

U.S. support for Israel is extensive. Every year, the United States provides Israel with $3 billion in aid, most of which is military. Israel uses that money to perpetuate its occupation. Additionally, the United States will use its veto power in the United Nations to block resolutions critical of Israeli human rights abuses and violations of international law (which it's done multiple times). During the peace process, it also helps Israel colonize more land by pressuring the Palestinian Authority to meet Israel's demands. American politicians who criticize Israel are ostracized and pressured by strong lobbies (such as AIPAC) and other politicians to conform to the pro-Israel consensus in the American foreign policy establishment.

The confirmation hearing for Chuck Hagel is a prime example U.S. police and military forces look to Israel for advice on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency tactics. For years, the United States banned the use of extra-judicial assassination, to the point where it criticized Israel for doing it. Now, the Obama administration has fully embraced that policy and codified it within the American national security apparatus. This nexus between U.S. and Israeli militarism plays a significant role in perpetuating the conflict. 

That is why I think this divestment bill is so important and worthy of approval. For students at a prestigious American university like Stanford, to take such a stand creates pressure for not only corporations but also the U.S. government to change their policies vis-a-vis and Israel and Palestine. Corporations that profit from the conflict perpetuate it. In order to bring an end to it, such corporations need to change their behavior, and the Stanford divestment bill seeks to bring that. 

Previous divestment bills have not been successful, and I'm not entirely optimistic about this one's success. However, it is possible for it to succeed. Stanford divested from South African apartheid during the 1980s, so there's a chance for the undergraduate senate to take a similar stand for justice.

Regardless of the outcome, however, the massive support for the bill shows that the movement is growing — certainly far more than when I was an undergrad. (And that wasn't long ago!) I have hope that this larger international movement for justice will be successful in ending human suffering in Israel/Palestine.