Students for Justice in Palestine launch #OxyDivest campaign

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Illustration courtesy of Adriana Pera

The Occidental affiliate group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) launched their #OxyDivest campaign with the release of the “Oxy Divestment Handbook” April 12. The handbook outlines what the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement is, SJP’s demands of the Occidental administration and the motivation behind the demands. The campaign joins a number of college campuses across the United States who are engaging in the BDS movement by asking their school administrations to critically evaluate their investments, according to Nat El-Hai (junior), a member of the SJP organizing committee.

BDS is a non-violent movement that urges individuals, organizations and countries to pressure the Israeli government to comply with international law and halt its human rights abuses of Palestinians, according to the Oxy Divestment Handbook.

In 2005, 170 Palestinian civil society bodies launched the BDS movement on the anniversary of the International Court of Justice’s opinion that Israel was in violation of international law with the West Bank barrier; it has since grown into a global campaign. The movement itself was modeled after boycotts of South Africa during the apartheid, according to El-Hai.

At Occidental, the two apartheids are linked as well. A similar divestment campaign took place at Occidental during the South African Apartheid in which Occidental not only refused to divest but also made their investments very opaque, according to El-Hai.

“Along with Palestinian and Israeli investments, we don’t know where Oxy’s money is going for a variety of other causes,” El-Hai said.

While the global BDS movement involves multiple aspects, this semester SJP at Occidental is focusing on the divestment portion with plans to expand the movement, according to El-Hai.

The “Oxy Divestment Handbook” lays out three demands for Occidental to comply with. The first demand is Occidental’s withdrawal of investments in companies identified by SJP as being complicit in the violations of international law by Israel until the companies halt their role in the Israeli apartheid. The second demand is that Occidental make their investments and endowment visible to the Occidental community. The third demand is that a committee will be formed to conduct research on whether Occidental’s holdings are complicit in illegal Israeli practices and to further evaluate Occidental’s investments for potential social harm.

Members of SJP said they are working hard to facilitate discussion for students who are unsure about what the #OxyDivest campaign is and what it means for students. Halla Keir (senior), another member of the SJP organizing committee, emphasized the importance of dialogue in the campaign.

“We want to spend a considerable amount of time dispelling the myths and misconceptions and engaging in conversation,” Keir said. “We want to make sure that the entire student body is on board with this as well, and that the student body recognizes why it’s important for us to be doing this.”

Due to their emphasis on engaging in discussion with and involving the community in SJP’s goals, SJP wanted to build a base with the community, according to Keir. The launch of the #OxyDivest campaign is the culmination of a school year’s worth of work for the members of SJP at Occidental. Lexi Banbury (senior), a member of the SJP organizing committee, said the campaign has been in the works since last August.

“First semester, in the fall, we did a lot of educational events, getting a lot of people engaged, and bringing back SJP as an active organization on campus,” Banbury said. “It all sort of came together in November and then we had enough momentum to turn this into a full-blown campaign.”

According to Keir, despite the lengthy planning of the campaign, the launch in the last month of the semester could halt further progress.

“What we’ve seen in particular from the administration is that they’ve taken advantage of the graduation cycle,” Keir said. “They often try to wait things out until the end of the semester for the graduating students to graduate, so I’m a little worried about losing traction because I know how the administration works.”

The members of SJP say they are committed to continuing the momentum of SJP and the #OxyDivest campaign despite this potential obstacle.

I want to make this part of the institutional memory so people don’t have to redo the work that we’ve done,” El-Hai said.

According to Keir, members of SJP’s organizing committee have yet to formally address the college administration to present the divestment campaign because they are focused on generating student interest. However, Keir said SJP has invited members of the administration to engage with SJP through other events, including those that took place during Israeli Apartheid Week.

“We did reach out to [the administration] and invite them to our events during Israeli Apartheid Week,” Keir said. “In particular, we highlighted the event that we had on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and Academic Unfreedom. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of the administration we invited. We haven’t directly reached out to them with the call to divest because we want to get student interest and have the student body in the same place when we do that.”

While the ultimate goal of the campaign is to put an end to human rights violations in Palestine, Keir said the campaign will also help create conversation within the Occidental community about the mission of the college in conjunction with Occidental’s role in injustices abroad. Banbury said the campaign will help hold Occidental to its standards.

“For the Oxy community, this movement means moving towards the mission of what Oxy stands for: equity, community, service and excellence, and holding the mission accountable,” Banbury said.

According to Keir, members of SJP acknowledge that BDS can come with discomfort and misconceptions, including the concern that the movement may perpetuate antisemitic attitudes. To address these concerns, SJP is working hard to facilitate communication with students as well as encourage questions about the goals of the campaign. Members of SJP say the #OxyDivest campaign is non-violent and not a campaign that advocates against the existence of the state of Israel or its people.

“It’s about working with universities that are complicit in militarizing and the surveillance of Palestinian students, or companies that directly provide the infrastructure,” Keir said. “It does not advocate for individual boycotts against a certain person.”

El-Hai, who is also president of Occidental’s Jewish Student Union (JSU), said they hope that students will reach out to SJP with any questions they may have.

“I know this can be an uncomfortable topic, but asking questions isn’t dangerous or harmful,” El-Hai said. “We really are here to answer your questions, we’re not trying to create an antagonistic environment or anything, we’re just trying to educate people.”