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April 15, 2016

Both Sides in Divestment Fight Plan Next Steps

In the first three weeks of spring quarter, the question of whether the University of Chicago should vote to divest from 10 multi-national companies that do work with the Israeli Defense Forces has kindled campus debate. After a long and contentious session Tuesday, College Council (CC) approved a resolution calling on the University to divest. 

Yesterday, the University administration released a statement strongly pushing back against divestment, particularly as it relates to Israel. None of the groups involved are backing down, leaving the campus wondering what will happen next.

The U of C Divest campaign launched on March 28, the first day of spring quarter, calling for the divestment of University of Chicago funds in companies active in Israel that the group claims are complicit in human rights violations against Palestinians.

Within a few days of the campaign’s launch, a group of students formed the UChicago Coalition for Peace to oppose divestment. Existing student organizations also took sides on the issue: J-Street UChicago, which organizes for a two-state solution, condemned the resolution, while the University’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace supported the resolution. Meanwhile, pro-divestment activists collected endorsements from RSOs ranging from the Southside Solidarity Network to Friends of Washington Park.

Immediately after the passing vote, half of the audience erupted in cheers, while the other half sat stunned and silent. With the divestment movement’s immediate goal accomplished, its supporters and opponents are now considering how they can continue to make their respective cases.

The Coalition for Peace called the vote a “stain on the University of Chicago” in a statement, adding, “we recognize that it is more important now than ever before that we continue our work. We are committed to identifying pathways to self-determination and human rights for both peoples through a two-state solution. We will continue to stand against BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] and the rejection of the existence of a Jewish state.”

In a statement posted to Facebook, U of C Divest acknowledged the uphill battle ahead, noting, “if history is any indication, we know that the University of Chicago does not divest and does not move to value marginalized and oppressed communities easily.”

Two days after the resolution was passed, the University administration strongly reaffirmed its desire for political neutrality and its opposition to divestment, in general and with regard to companies doing business in Israel: “Using investments or other means to advance a social or political position held by some segment of the University community would only diminish the University’s distinctive contribution – providing a home and environment for faculty and students to engage freely and openly on the widest range of issues.”

In an interview with The Maroon the day after the vote, University President Robert J. Zimmer distanced the University’s official position from the College Council vote. “The only thing we need to respond to [with regard to the passage of the resolution] is to be clear that this was a resolution by a group of students, that’s not the University’s position…. We have to be clear about that, that this has absolutely nothing to do with the University position, which has been quite clear over time.”

The University does not make its investments public, and members of U of C Divest have acknowledged they do not know how much money, if any, is invested in the companies named in the resolution. Additionally, according to Zimmer, the University mainly invests in portfolios rather than in individual companies. The University of Chicago refused to divest from apartheid-era South Africa, Sudan during its war in Darfur, and fossil fuels, each time citing the principles of institutional neutrality expressed in the 1967 Kalven Report.

“UChicago reaffirming its dedication to apartheid is only going to make us work harder,” Hoda Katebi, a fourth-year student and member of U of C Divest, wrote in an e-mail in response to the statement.

Katebi noted that in the resolution, U of C Divest called for the creation of a Socially Responsible Investment Committee. “Because this was a coalition movement, there were many different concerned students and organizations on campus dedicated to making sure that our investments aren’t going contrary to our morals. And so, I think the next step is basically creating this broader coalition of students to push for this investment committee and demand transparency,” she said in an interview.

She added, “we’ve seen a lot of really disgusting backlash happen, we want to make sure that students on campus are continuously educated and understanding what’s going on.” She pointed to the defacement of signs posted by Students for Justice in Palestine this fall and anti-Palestinian and racist e-mails leaked from Jewish fraternity AEPi this winter as examples of the backlash.

Fourth-year Maxine Berman, a representative from the Coalition for Peace, welcomed the University statement and expressed hope that students become well informed about the debate. “We hope to continue to educate our fellow students on the two-state solution, the right of self-determination, and Israel and provide support to students alienated and distressed by the College Council’s passage of this deeply problematic resolution,” Berman wrote in an e-mail.

She continued, “The Coalition for Peace represents students from different organizations, and was created for one specific goal: to counter U of C Divest’s resolution. These students and organizations will continue their work on advocacy for a two-state solution, dialogue, and education on Israel, which are the core values of our coalition.”

Other groups voiced their own concerns for continued dialogue but also called for continued action.

“The essence of the campaign was political education, and that’s how [the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)] intends to follow up on this vote…” Ben Chametzky (A.B. ’15), a co-founder of Jewish Voice for Peace, wrote in an e-mail. “We might also try to have a small Passover Seder with our fellow campaign organizers before the end of the month to celebrate and unpack our feelings after this big step forward.”

“We do not and should not have to choose between support for the creation of a Palestinian state and an end to the occupation, and support for the rights and security of Israelis. This resolution will not deter us,” read a statement posted on J-Street UChicago’s Facebook page after the resolution passed. First-year Isaac Johnston, a J-Street UChicago representative, wrote in an e-mail that the group plans to continue working with the larger Chicago and American Jewish communities and bringing leaders in those communities to campus for weekly meetings and dialogues.

The members of SG’s Executive Slate—President Tyler Kissinger, Vice-President for Administration Alex Jung, and Vice-President for Student Affairs Kenzo Esquivel—did not vote on Tuesday’s resolution because they are not part of College Council. In a statement to The Maroon, Slate praised the process that led to College Council’s vote.

“The passage of the resolution is a fundamental recognition that our school’s financial decisions can and do have an impact reaching far beyond Chicago, and that students should have a say in how our University is run. Following the resolution, we believe it is necessary for there to be open dialogue between University administration, faculty, and students regarding the role of the Kalven report,” the statement read in part.

In order to make this possible, the statement continued, students should have opportunities to make their case directly to members of the Board of Trustees.

Another prong of the BDS movement is boycotting Israeli academic institutions. In its resolution, the U of C Divest campaign does not call for an academic boycott of Israel, though the resolution associates the divestment campaign with BDS in general at several points. An attempt by members of College Council to remove references to BDS failed when it was put up to a vote.

In its statement, the University of Chicago said that “Faculty and students must be free to pursue their research and education around the world, and to form collaborations both inside and outside the academy, encouraging engagement with the widest spectrum of views. For this reason, the University continues to strongly oppose boycotts of academic institutions or scholars in any region of the world, including recent actions to boycott Israeli institutions.”

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