Hampshire College Students Win Divestment
of Companies Profiting From the Israeli Occupation
Interview with Brian Van Slyke,
coordinator of Students for Justice in Palestine,
conducted by Melinda Tuhus
In Feb. 7, Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., became the first college in the U.S. to have its board of trustees vote to divest from holdings in companies that support the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The vote was the result of a two-year campaign by Students for Justice in Palestine. It should be noted that when the board acted, the board president and the college president issued a “clarification” that the divestment decision was made “without reference to any country or political movement.”
Among the companies students recommended for divestment, due to their financial interest in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land were: Caterpillar, General Electric, ITT, Motorola, Terex and United Technologies. In response, Alan Dershowitz, a prominent supporter of Israeli policy has threatened to initiate an international campaign to divest from Hampshire College.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Brian Van Slyke, a junior at Hampshire and a coordinator of Students for Justice in Palestine. He is also the elected student member of the board of trustees, with voting power. Van Slyke describes the successful campaign, which resulted in the college divesting of approximately 20 percent of its $30 million portfolio. And he provides a possible explanation for the college officials’ denials of targeting the Israeli occupation.
BRIAN VAN SLYKE: Hampshire College’s divestment from the State Street mutual fund, was the direct result of a two-year campaign led by Students for Justice in Palestine. We had a petition that more than 800 members of the community signed. Most of that was students; we have a very small campus. So we did other things on campus such as organizing educational events, having movie screenings, dialogues, bringing people to do speeches, protests and rallies – especially when things erupted in Gaza – vigils. We set up a few times, a mock wall on the library lawn, which is the main center on campus, and handed every student a different type of passport – Israeli passport, Palestinian passport, and treated them differently and made them come see the realities of the wall and life in the West Bank. We reached out to surrounding colleges, but we also did a lot of internal work within the board of trustees. We stacked the ballot for student reps to the board of trustees and each committee and the board of trustees itself, and in almost every single position got a student on our side elected. So we really pushed the board of trustees for about nine months after we introduced it, and it eventually was accepted. And for the nine months – until only days before this was approved by the board of trustees – the only six companies discussed were the six companies identified by SJP that we were invested in that contributed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and only days before that happened were other companies looked at. So yeah, this is a direct result of student pressure.
BETWEEN THE LINES: And what are those six companies?
BRIAN VAN SLYKE: Those six companies were United Technologies, General Electric, Motorola, Terex, ITT and Caterpillar. The administration actually asked SJP to identify all companies that were involved in the occupation, and we gave them a list of 20 companies that were involved in the occupation, and they divested from the six that we were invested in and they didn’t invest in the other 14. So this just goes to show that the occupation was a large part and a moving part of this divestment.
BETWEEN THE LINES: The president of the board of trustees and the president of the college have certainly put a different spin on their divestment decision. They put out a statement that the board accepted the report of its investment committee that voted, “without reference to any country or political movement, to transfer assets held in a State Street fund to another fund.” The statement said that the review showed that “this fund held stocks in well over 200 companies engaged in business practices that violate the college’s policy on socially responsible investments. These violations include: unfair labor practices, environmental abuse, military weapons manufacturing, and unsafe workplace settings.” Why do you think they spun it this way?
BRIAN VAN SLYKE: Why they’re saying that now is because of outside people like Alan Dershowitz and, you know, they just got cold feet. But for nine months the only six companies that were talked about were the six companies identified by SJP, and we have internal documents and meeting minute notes since we were on all the committees that approved it. So, you know what, if our anti-occupation movement helped us divest from other companies along the way, we’re totally psyched about that too – other bad companies we don’t want to be invested in.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What does Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who is a militant supporter of Israel, have to do with this?
BRIAN VAN SLYKE: Only a matter of hours after we went public, Alan Dershowitz personally called SJP members, including myself, and personally threatened them and the college. We don’t know how he got our contact information, but he called us and he threatened us and then after that he made a huge threat that he was going to organize a boycott campaign of the college, he was going to organize international divestment of the college, he was going to organize a personal boycott of us individually – I’m not sure how you do that – but he was going to do things like that. So, there’s been a lot of pressure from people like him to discredit SJP.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What is your group doing going forward? Are you in touch with students at other colleges who want their schools to divest from the occupation?
BRIAN VAN SLYKE: The few things we’re really focused on right now are, we’re still trying to get our message and our argument out there. We still got a lot of things to say about this, we’re trying to make it far and wide and reach other students and other activist groups who want to organize divestment campaigns at their colleges. So we’re really still trying to get out there. We’re trying to figure out ways we can work with other colleges and help them look at our model and see what they could adapt from what we did and apply it to their college.
We’re also trying to do a lot of fundraising for our college, because people like Alan Dershowitz are going to be trying – or, excuse me – are trying to organize a boycott of the college. We’re a pretty fragile institution – we’re a very small college, so that could be seriously damaging to us. So we’re trying to organize fundraising for the college so no one could make an example of us so that we could really serve as a shining example of how to do divestment from the occupation.
For more information, visit Students for Justice in Palestine’s website at www.hsjp.org
- “Israeli Elections a Windfall for the Hard Right,”
Interview with Phyllis Bennis, conducted by Scott Harris, Between The Lines week ending Feb. 27, 2009
- “Combatants for Peace and the Billboard from Bethlehem” at iwagepeace.org
- Combatants for Peace at www.combatantsforpeace.org
to Scott Harris’ half-hour Counterpoint live interview with director Bruce Barrett
- “Israeli Elections and the Rise of the Right”
by Phyllis Bennis, Foreign Policy in Focus, Feb. 12, 2009
- “Worldwide Protests Condemn Israel’s Gaza Attack and Occupation,”
Excerpt of speech by Adam Shapiro, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, at a Jan. 9 New Haven, Conn. protest rally, produced by Melinda Tuhus
- “Israel’s November Violation of Gaza Cease-Fire Sets Stage for Current Conflict,”
Interview with Ali Abunimah, conducted by Scott Harris, Between The Lines, Week Ending Jan. 16, 2009
- “CNN Confirms Israel Broke Cease-Fire First in November,”
Rick Sanchez, CNN, Jan. 5, 2009
- Electronic Intifada at www.electronicintifada.net
- “Hardline Jewish Settler Violence Against IDF Has Alienated Many Israelis,”
Interview with Hagit Ofran, conducted by Melinda Tuhus, Between The Lines Week Ending Dec. 19, 2008
- U.S. Chapter of Peacenow.org at peacenow.org
- Other Voice — A group for a civil solution in the Sderot-Gaza region at www.othervoice.org
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Between The Lines
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