A New Stage in BDS Divestment Initiatives?

We have perhaps reached a new stage in Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement efforts on US campuses to press divestment campaigns against firms doing business with Israel.

Until now, such initiatives have involved attempts by BDS adherents to win student government votes on resolutions or to carry campus-wide referenda calling on university authorities to divest their holdings from businesses dealing with Israel. The current initiative at Georgetown University in Washington DC is different. The demand for disinvestment issues from a submission by three students in October to a standing university committee (not a student government vote), which the university sponsors to advise on socially responsible investing.  A mobilization is now underway among students and faculty to bolster support for that proposal.

Georgetown University ought to be free, leaders of the Georgetown University Forming a Radically Ethical Endowment (GU F.R.E.E.) say, of all complicity with “state violence” to honor its Jesuit values. In practice, the students claim, this means that Georgetown ought to adopt a policy of transparency regarding its holdings, annually reporting on its investment portfolio. Only transparency assures that “our dollars are not subsidizing systems of oppression.” Currently, no one outside the top university leadership sees the list of endowment holdings.

For GU F.R.E.E, it means also that Georgetown should divest now from holdings in the American private prison industry, because it profits from the mass incarceration of members of the Black, Latino, Native American, poor, and working class communities. And it means further that Georgetown should divest from companies doing business with Israel, namely companies that are “consistently and knowingly involved in ongoing international law and human rights violations in the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.”

Pairing separate demands for divestment from the U.S. prison industry and from companies selling to Israel increases the ability of BDS forces to mobilize an intersectional coalition of minority groups and individuals on campus behind classic BDS objectives. In the current climate, this broadens likely support among students for a radical departure in managing the university’s endowment. The list of supporting organizations behind GU F.R.E.E. includes seventeen student organizations and reads like a multicultural alliance involving most minority identities on campus.

Socially Responsible Investing on Campus

The Georgetown Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility (CISR) consisting of faculty, administrators, and students, has been around since 1970 but was strengthened by an expansion in its functions during 2012. The reform permits the committee now to “consider and evaluate written proposals on social responsible investment issues from members of the university community.” The changes reflect a well-intentioned desire to stir thoughtful dialogue on the university’s Catholic and Jesuit mission and its investment actions. If proposals submitted to CISR merit further evaluation, the committee is empowered to make direct advisory recommendations to the Subcommittee on Finance of the Georgetown Board of Directors. The CISR cannot review or recommend specific investments but can flag proposals submitted to it and make written recommendations.

As in many elite universities, students have been increasingly interested in socially responsible investing.  In 2015, efforts by Georgetown students to urge divestment from fossil fuels led to a decision by the university to discontinue direct investments of endowment funds in companies involve in mining coal. The CISR guidelines indicate that the university prefers engagement over divestment. Divestment involves letting go of holdings; engagement means monitoring them to assess their non-financial impacts. With CISR, the university offers a process where proposals from community members can be vetted and moved forward to the Board of Directors; controversy thus shifts from student government to this committee with faculty and administrative representation as well as student representation.

Talking Points Against Divestment at Georgetown

Those currently mobilizing at Georgetown University in opposition to this initiative are considering several reasons why divestment should not be supported. These groups include the Georgetown Israel Alliance, J Street, and the new Georgetown Bipartisan Pro-Israel Dialogue (GBPID). Their talking points have not yet become available. The opposition also includes several university faculty. For those interested, we include some talking points that may assist them in their work.

Based on initiatives elsewhere, we can say that divestment sharpens divisions and will turn the university into a hostile environment for some members of the community. Free ideas and open dialogue ought to thrive on this and other matters, but divestment and talk about Israel as a pariah is quite polarizing and will test good order on campus.

Second, the proposal on divesting from companies dealing with Israel offers a flawed and partial account of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, ignoring the multiple efforts by successive Israeli governments to reach peace agreements, which were rebuffed by Palestinian leaders over several decades.

Third, divestment from Israel will neither advance justice nor human rights in the region.  It is rather a form of symbolic politics aimed at delegitimizing Israel, not a practical politics aimed at proposing new initiatives to change realities in the region.

Fourth, linking proposals for prison divestment and divestment from companies dealing with Israel has no intrinsic merit, as these are separate and unrelated issues – and do not belong to a shared category of “oppression.”  Linking them this way speaks to mobilization strategy on campus aimed at attracting minority students but offers little on how divestment might help create a peaceful future for the region.

Finally, the proposal is a form of bigotry, singling out Israel from among many countries that might possibly merit concern about “state violence”.  But of all the possibilities, only Israel is targeted. Israel’s selection is discriminatory, and hence deeply inconsistent with Georgetown’s values.

Current Developments

In response to the demands by GU F.R.E.E., the Georgetown administration has this past week declined to disclose a list of companies in which the university invests.  Chief of Staff Joseph A. Ferrara said in an email to GU F.R.E.E. that the university’s standard practice is not to disclose its investments. President DeGioia is also on record since 2006 as opposed to divestment, a position that has not changed in over a decade. For the leadership at Georgetown, the best way to address the conflict in the Middle East is through the normal work of a university, including dialogue, research, and intellectual discovery.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.