Reflections on Hampshire’s Successful Campaign to Divest from the Illegal Israeli Occupation, Two Years Later
Two years ago, in 2009, Students for Justice in Palestine succeeded in forcing Hampshire College to become the first institution of higher education in the United States to divest from the Israeli Occupation. Now, I don’t know if any of you have heard of Hampshire College before. It’s this tiny little college, in a tiny little town, in the backwoods of the tiny little state of Massachusetts; it has a tiny little population, and a tiny little endowment. Yet, when we succeeded in becoming the first college to divest from the illegal occupation, we were endorsed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the late Dr. Howard Zinn; Noam Chomsky; musician Roger Waters of Pink Floyd; Naomi Klein, Phyllis Bennis; the Palestinian BDS National Committee; Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney; a Nobel Peace Laureate; poets; writers; activists; international policy makers, and more. At the same time, unconditional supporters of Israel’s atrocities and injustices also attacked us. For example, I personally received a phone call from Alan Dershowitz, which was just the first step in a very public intimidation campaign he launched against us.
So – let me back up, how did we get there?
Historic Economic Boycotts and the Current BDS Movement
First, I think it’s important to put why we launched a divestment campaign at our school into perspective.
There is a growing movement within this nation and worldwide called Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions – or BDS for short – which is a new, vital movement aimed at impacting the situation in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Israel itself. And I stress that this is vital in the Palestine/Israel struggle because all other attempts, such as the so-called “peace process,” have proven ineffectual and even harmful as they have drawn out the colonization and occupation of Palestine.
At its core, BDS is a dual tool that is being used to put economic pressure on Israel and to educate the wider public about Palestine. So, what does BDS look like?
In July of 2005, to quote the official Global BDS website, “a clear majority of Palestinian civil society called upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel.”
In short, people all around the world are boycotting products from illegal Israeli colonies in the West Bank (like Ahava beauty products), students are pressuring their colleges to divest from companies producing military equipment and weapons for the Israeli army, and government officials are feeling the heat to put economic sanctions on Israel until it complies with international law and lifts the blockade on Gaza.
There are a few things that are extremely important to understand about the BDS initiative that makes it a critical strategy. The first is that it is completely non-violent. BDS is an effort to employ economic means to utilize global, grassroots efforts rather than simply waiting on ineffective governments to act. The second important thing to keep in mind is that BDS is an indigenous call from Palestine. It is what Palestinians are telling us we can do to be their allies in their struggle.
What’s more, this movement is rooted in a history of successful struggles for justice. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela utilized a BDS movement to end the apartheid regime in South Africa, which finally collapsed in the 1980’s. Now, they have also endorsed BDS as a means to end the occupation and colonization of Palestine. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks employed boycotts and other economic strategies in the Civil Rights movement. Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass also attempted to abolish slavery through economic means.
Today, globally and in the United States, BDS efforts have been making gains in the face of tremendous odds. I can share my personal experience as one example of these successes.
When Hampshire College Students for Justice in Palestine formed in 2007, we knew the historic significance of BDS and we wanted to do what the Palestinians were asking us to do to act in solidarity. At that time, however, there was very little BDS mobilization – the movement was nowhere on the radar level that it is today. So we set out to craft a statement and action plan that we wanted the college to adopt – an institutional statement. Our statement had six points, and divestment was only one of those. To be frank, it also seemed like the least likely of the six to be adopted.
I can’t really go through a time-line or step-by-step process of our campaign, nor do I want to, as time has seemed to blur those two years of our efforts together. What I can provide, however, is a thematic understanding of what we did as well as some of the lessons to learn from our successes and failures.
I think one of the smartest things that SJP did was to simultaneously push on the bureaucratic and school governance level while also mobilizing on the grassroots and community level. What this allowed us to do was to play the successes of each effort off the other.
Our grassroots and community approach followed the simple, time-tested, and powerful organizing mantra of “educate, agitate, and organize.”
For two years, we organized educational events, built our base and support on campus, flyered, and constructed mock walls on our campus’s front lawn to simulate checkpoints while also conducting protests and demonstrations. While doing so, we constantly collected signature endorsements from students, faculty, and staff for our institutional statement. We did this in front of the dining commons, outside of the library, and so forth. Here we openly engaged in friendly discussions and sometimes intense debates about Palestine and Israel as well as our proposed plan of action. What we were doing was making the occupation, the colonization of the West Bank, internal racist Israeli laws, and the siege of Gaza visible on our campus and nearly impossible to ignore.
At the same time, we worked to get members of our own group as well as members of allied social justice groups elected to student positions on Hampshire’s Board of Trustees and Board of Trustees’ subcommittees. We did research to discover the companies profiting from the illegal occupation that Hampshire was invested in and presented divestment solutions to the appropriate Trustee subcommittees. Through every step of the bureaucratic process, we were there – pushing and prodding, pointing to the successes of our actions and our massive collection of signatures as proof that the college community wanted to divest from the illegal Israeli occupation.
Divestment and Aftermath
When the college finally did divest after two years of constant pressure, and Hampshire SJP celebrated appropriately, the school administration attempted to depoliticize the move by saying their motive for divestment was about general human rights emerging from various other issues. After being bullied by Alan Dershowitz and other colonialist-sympathizers, the school decided to stab its students and allied community members in the back by throwing us to the wolves – and claiming we had misrepresented their actions. Luckily, as a result of our having students participating in the college’s government, we had internal documents that allowed us to correct the administration’s cowardice and slanders.
Lessons Learned: Successes and Failures
It’s important to take some time to reflect on a few of the key lessons of our campaign – both where we succeeded and where we did not. Obviously, these lessons aren’t applicable to every campus. Hampshire College is a small, private school with a very different environment than large universities – but we can and should share organizing histories and strategies.
To me, our failures were serious but understandable. The largest of these failures, obviously, was our inability to get the college to release an official statement alongside their divestment from the State Street mutual fund, which held six companies profiting from Israel’s occupation. This put us in the vulnerable position of having to fight back against not only the massive political force of the defenders of Israel’s atrocities but also our very own college, who quickly buckled to outside pressure. Essentially, we had prepared to be called “terrorists,” “terrorist sympathizers,” and “anti-Semites” – and we knew how to respond to those accusations. What we didn’t prepare for was being called liars. This forced us to spend a good amount of time, energy, and resources defending ourselves and our story, rather than simply using the platform to educate the public about Palestine as well as the BDS movement.
Our biggest success, in my mind, was giving the campus BDS movement the push it needed as well as an example it could point to in order to show divesting from the occupation is possible.
Here’s my point: if our success at that tiny, little, insignificant college could draw such wide-ranging support from historic fighters for justice, and such malicious attacks from those defenders of colonization, apartheid, and occupation – you know we’re on to something. Now imagine if the University of Chicago, Oberlin, the New School, George Washington University, or Arizona State divested – what could that mean for the movement?
And don’t think it’s impossible. Hampshire College was also the first school in the U.S. to divest from apartheid South Africa in the 1970’s, and we were followed shortly thereafter by the University of Massachusetts and then, after many years, other bigger and smaller institutions. These victories went on to inspire BDS campaigns in non-college settings. Groups led product boycotts, unions struck in solidarity with indigenous South Africans, and workers refused to handle South African goods – and the list goes on and on. We’re seeing a repeat of this today in the struggle for Palestine. This is a historically proven method, and it’s a movement that’s working and growing right here in the United States.
We have a history that we must live up to and a legacy that we must build off of, and Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions is the way to do that. BDS is a grass roots and global movement to hold Israel accountable for its actions and to struggle side-by-side with Palestinians for their rights and their lives. The only way to make this movement successful, however, is if we all get involved.
One thing that I think is incredibly interesting is that when we were claiming victory at Hampshire in 2009, supporters of Israeli colonization and occupation were laughing at the BDS movement – saying it had no achievements and was ineffectual. Now, in little over two years, defenders of Israeli atrocities are citing the BDS movement as the biggest threat to the status quo. That’s how rapidly this global campaign is growing and making an impact. This only shows that if we continue to push, we – the people of conscience that the Palestinian civil society called upon to act – can make the difference that international leaders have been unable and unwilling to make.