Campus protesters face off against police.
Pro-Palestinian students and activists face police officers after protesters were evicted from the library on campus earlier in the day at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon on May 2, 2024.
(Photo: John Rudoff/AFP via Getty Images)

What Students Mean When They Demand Divestment, and Why We Should Listen

The basic idea of divestment is simple: Stop investing in corporations or other entities that are doing harm.

Almost every day this spring, students used their graduation ceremonies as a platform to demand their universities and colleges divest from genocide in Gaza. Though I have been to hundreds of protests and events in my lifetime—in Palestine and in the U.S.—I find something particularly moving about students risking their own academic achievements to shine a light on the suffering and struggle of Palestinians.

I watched the first news reports of the Columbia University encampment from my family home in Ramallah, on the West Bank, during a work trip to the region. As the movement spread to other colleges and universities, I was meeting with staff from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)—a Quaker organization I lead—in Ramallah and Amman. I met with teachers, farmers, activists, and politicians. They were so moved by the student encampments; it was all they wanted to talk about.

Our staff in Gaza have continued their lifesaving humanitarian aid work despite multiple displacements and the deaths of many friends and family members. They too were encouraged by the student protests. People in Rafah were painting messages of support and thanks for the students on the walls of their tents.

Missiles and bombs should have no place in a university’s investment portfolio, just as they should never be dropped on universities—in Gaza or anywhere in the world.

In the face of so much death and destruction, the protests bring hope to people in Palestine and around the world. But on my return to the U.S., many people seemed confused about what the demand for divestment actually meant.

The basic idea of divestment is simple: Stop investing in corporations or other entities that are doing harm. When large corporations profit from war and occupation, or poor labor conditions and environmental destruction, they tend to use their political influence to deepen and entrench these harmful activities—for example, the defense industry hires lobbyists and makes campaign contributions to influence politicians and policies to buy and use more weapons. Institutions like colleges and universities generally have large endowments that are invested in the stock market—and their portfolios may include such companies.

Divestment campaigns put pressure on these institutions to withdraw their money from companies engaging in harmful activities. When colleges and universities withdraw their investments from companies profiting from violence and exploitation, they also withdraw their political and financial support for these institutions and help create new behavior standards that respect human life, human rights, peace, and sustainability.

There is a long history of divestment as part of successful nonviolent movements for change. At AFSC, we’ve used divestment strategies in the anti-apartheid movement, farmworkers’ rights campaigns, the movement for nuclear disarmament, peace and anti-militarism campaigns, and struggles against mass incarceration and for the rights of immigrants.

We also practice what we preach. Using our investment screen, AFSC has divested our own funds from fossil fuels, Israeli occupation and apartheid, mass incarceration and mass surveillance in the U.S., and the militarization of borders, among other oppressive systems. Like many other organizations that invest responsibly, we have not seen any negative impact on our returns. The investors that insist on continuing to invest in social harm and human suffering are motivated by political will, not financial acumen.

Today we are joining with thousands of people across the U.S. to call for divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s brutal attacks on Gaza and its refusal to allow sufficient lifesaving humanitarian aid to enter. In fact, we are calling for divestment from all companies that are consistently, and knowingly complicit in grave human rights violations and violations of international law—wherever they occur.

The International Court of Justice, in response to South Africa’s request for additional measures in its genocide case, ordered an immediate halt to the assault on Rafah. Instead, Israel is bombing tent encampments in areas they have declared “safe zones,” killing children while they sleep. Institutions that choose to keep profiting from or supporting these atrocities are themselves complicit. The students occupying their universities are doing what student movements have done courageously for decades. They are leveraging their position to challenge their academic institutions to do the right thing. While the details of the demands vary from campus to campus, the message is the same: No one should profit from genocide, and we all must take action to stop it.

This includes divesting from publicly traded weapons manufacturers like Boeing, Elbit Systems, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin Corp, and Northrop Grumman, all of whom have provided weapons used in Israeli attacks on Gaza. It also includes companies like Valero, an oil and gas company that has been supplying military-grade jet fuel for the Israeli Air Force, and Palantir, a high-tech mass surveillance company that has been providing its AI-powered tools to the Israeli security forces.

Missiles and bombs should have no place in a university’s investment portfolio, just as they should never be dropped on universities—in Gaza or anywhere in the world. Yet as many student protestors have pointed out, every university in Gaza has been destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. Academic institutions should be investing in the wellbeing and intellectual development of the next generation, not its destruction.

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