On November 14, after months of controversy and a decade of organizing, the Central Student Government (CSG) of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor voted to pass a resolution calling on the university’s Board of Regents to create a committee to investigate at least three companies operating within Israel that are involved in alleged human rights violations of Palestinians.
The University of Michigan is one of the larger US universities to have passed such a resolution. The victory is indicative of the ongoing effectiveness of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign, even against the backdrop of an extremely pro-Israel Trump administration.
The Michigan resolution was controversial enough within the CSG that the group created its own investigative committee prior to voting on the resolution, in order to ensure all voices in the debate were heard and adequately represented.
Authored by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), the resolution took more than a decade to pass, after a sustained effort by Palestinian students and a wide range of allies across campus and around the country.
The coalition supporting the passage of the resolution included over 40 different student organizations, 20 members of University of Michigan faculty, and large numbers of students and alumni.
The aim of the resolution: to have the Board of Regents look deeply into funds invested by the University in three companies seen as violating the human rights of Palestinians, with the hope that, if these violations are proven, the University will divest from the companies.
The action is in alignment with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, which according to its website, “is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.”
BDS has spread widely across US college campuses, where students, faculty and staff are calling for their institutions to divest from companies that are complicit in Israel’s human rights violations. In addition to the University of Michigan, several other large US universities have passed divestment resolutions since 2003, including seven of the nine University of California undergraduate campuses, other large East Coast and Midwest schools, and dozens of other universities and colleges across the US.
The movement extends far beyond colleges: It is also comprised of academic associations, unions, churches and other international grassroots movements. BDS has been growing for over a decade, and is having a major impact by, in the campaign’s words, “effectively challenging international support for Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism.”
To date, several major European companies, such as Veolia and Orange, have exited the Israeli market after successful BDS campaigns over their complicity with Israeli human rights violations. These exits amounted to at least $20 billion in losses.
Elevating a Voice
University of Michigan CSG President Anushka Sarkar, who signed the resolution, wrote a statement published by the Michigan Daily, the campus newspaper, about her personal beliefs on the issue.
“I believe the intent of this resolution is to elevate a marginalized community’s voice, voices that have been muffled and diluted, year after year,” Sarkar wrote. “I believe the students who advocate for the investigation of companies in which the University of Michigan is invested that are tied to the violation of Palestinian human rights do so because they believe in advocating for what is just. I believe the authors and advocates of this resolution do not intend to target Jewish people, and I do not believe that criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic.”
On the contrary, Sarkar believes the spirit of the resolution is to lift up the voices of students who believe in protecting Palestinian human rights, and that it is also in alignment with the University of Michigan’s mission statement “to challenge the present.” She also believes the resolution is in alignment with the vision statement of the university, which states the aim of dedicating itself to responsible stewardship of financial resources.
The University of Michigan has not yet taken any action regarding the resolution. However, Rick Fitzgerald, a university spokesperson, provided comment by issuing a statement.
“The University’s longstanding policy is to shield the endowment from political pressures and to base our investment decisions solely on financial factors such as risk and return,” Fitzgerald’s statement reads. “This approach has been underscored consistently by university leaders, including the Board of Regents, most recently in December 2015. We do not anticipate a change in this approach or the creation of a committee.”
The three companies the Michigan resolution is focusing on are Boeing, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and United Technologies.
According to a statement of solidarity to support the divestment movement on campus, Boeing “has been a major supplier of the F-15 Eagle and the AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to Israel. These aircraft have been used to attack Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, resulting in many civilian casualties. Boeing makes missile systems, F-15 software, Apache Helicopters, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), a guided air-to-surface weapon.”
HP works with the Israel Prison Service, according to the aforementioned statement, “to develop, implement, and maintain a new information system, called Kidma, to include all its prisoner records system, prison management system, the prisons’ human resources system, and their intelligence system. The Israeli Prison Service is in charge of all incarcerated persons in Israel/Palestine. As of April 2017, this includes some 6,400, among whom about 500 are in in administrative detention and 300 are children.”
United Technologies is included in the divestment movement because it produces Blackhawk helicopters used by the Israeli military to attack and kill residents of Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps.
A shortlist of other companies the broader BDS campaign focuses on include G4S, General Electric and Lockheed Martin.