Board of Trustees rejects SJP’s request to divest from Israel

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Thorne Hall at Occidental College. Sarah Hofmann/The Occidental

Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Finance, Planning and Operations Amos Himmelstein sent a campus-wide email Jan. 29 containing a statement from the Occidental Board of Trustees saying it had decided to reject a request from the college’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to divest endowment money from eight companies that do business in Israel. SJP’s Divestment Campaign Handbook defines these companies as “[profiting] from the State of Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian human rights through its ongoing system of settler colonialism, military occupation, and apartheid.” The divestment request was co-signed by the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Senate and Diversity & Equity Board (DEB), as well as over a dozen clubs and cultural organizations.

The college’s statement was drafted by the board’s Investment Committee and approved by the larger board Jan. 28.

“Regarding divestment, the Board has concluded that Occidental’s endowment should not be used as a political instrument to take a position on a geopolitical issue as complex and divisive as the Israel-Palestine conflict,” the Board’s statement said.

Layal Bata (senior), an SJP member who attended two meetings with members of the Investment Committee to negotiate divestment Oct. 3, 2019, and Jan. 27, 2020, said she was not surprised by the decision.

“The answer of ‘no’ was something we were expecting and it’s not like we’re going to stop because they said no,” Bata said.

SJP had originally planned to hold direct action protests on campus in response to a non-divestment decision, according to Bata, but the pandemic has forced a postponement of those plans. She said the club is now formulating digital activism plans.

According to Bata, members of the Investment Committee had told SJP representatives in January 2020, at the second of the two meetings, that the Board of Trustees would release an official statement on their response to the club’s demands between Feb. 15 and March 1, 2020, a few weeks before students were sent home because of the pandemic. No statement was made at that time. SJP members followed up in Fall 2020 by email and met with President Harry J. Elam Jr., which they believe resulted in the statement being made.

A former SJP member agreed the non-divestment decision is not surprising, but still disappointing, as the college uses social justice to attract prospective students.

“I think part of the reason that we felt we were able to bring this forth is because the school, both to current students and prospective students, advertised it as a place that is a home for social justice,” the former SJP member said. “I was a tour guide for Oxy, I remember we used to tell people that Barack Obama gave his first speech on the steps in front of the AGC. That first speech was about divesting from South African apartheid.”

As mentioned in 2019 letter to the editor from SJP, Occidental did not divest from South Africa following Obama’s speech. The former SJP member said they see Occidental’s decision to ignore Palestinian demands for divestment as a way to avoid backlash because of differing opinions amongst the Occidental community.

Alissa Bernstein (senior), president of the Occidental chapter of Hillel, a national Jewish cultural organization, said she was personally relieved upon hearing of the non-divestment decision. She said she did not receive the campus-wide email regarding the decision, and had not heard about the 2019 movement for divestment.

“For something so substantial, it seemed very covert,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein said she was raised in a highly observant household and believes Judaism and Israel are deeply intertwined. She said that her Jewish identity is an integral part of who she is, and her connection to Israel is part of her connection to her Jewish identity.

“The connection to Israel and the reference to our homeland is even woven into our traditions,” Bernstein said. “For example, when synagogues are built they are constructed in such a way that when we pray, we are faced towards Jerusalem. We stomp on glass at our weddings to symbolize and remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”

Bernstein said she considers herself a Zionist.

“There is a huge misconception about what Zionism is: it simply is the belief that Jews should be able to self-determine in their ancestral homeland,” Bernstein said. “This self-determination and the self-determination of Palestinians are not mutually exclusive. Both peoples have deep connections to the land, and neither should be denied their rightful claim to it.”

Nat El-Hai ’20, co-founder of the Jewish Student Union and its president in their final two collegiate years, said they believe that Judaism and Zionism are not essential to one another. They said they were raised in a Reformed Zionist temple where they agreed with the teachings, but it was through their own political education that they later saw a contradiction between Jewish values and Zionism.

El-Hai said they believe nationalism and patriotism are not part of the Jewish religion, but they are often conflated. According to El-Hai, the non-violent movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) Israel is often misunderstood.

“The pillars are ending the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands, recognizing the fundamental rights of Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equity and respecting and protecting and promoting the return and rights of Palestinian refugees to their homes and properties, [as] stipulated in various UN Resolutions,” El-Hai said.

Both El-Hai and Bernstein said the conversation about the Israel-Palestine conflict on campus can get tense and far too personal, with El-Hai referring to online harassment for their anti-Zionist views, and Bernstein referring to feeling shamed into hiding her Zionist views for multiple years.

According to the former SJP member, conversations around the issue on campus often sideline Palestinian students.

The former SJP member also said they believe Occidental has continued to thwart a series of student movements by slowing the pace of activism and decision-making until students graduate and movements falter. They said they believe this tactic has been used against other unmet demands made by students such as the Oxy United for Black Liberation during the AGC Occupation and the failed movement for divestment of the endowment from fossil fuels.

“They don’t care as long as they keep making money,” the former SJP member said. “And there is no reason to change the policy when they know that they can just keep telling students to kind of quiet down and shut up for the next year.”

The former SJP member said that in their research for divestment, they found that Cambridge Associates, the investment firm that the college uses, has an ethical portfolio called an ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance), but the college has not chosen to use it.

Amos Himmelstein, in an interview on Feb. 4, said in regards to the college not divesting from fossil fuels that there had been conversations around the topic, but they ended with the Board of Trustees not taking a position on the issue or making a statement. He said that he anticipates that the conversation around fossil fuel divestment will be revisited in the future.

Himmelstein said that he advised Oxy 350 members to show how investing in renewable energy would actually result in higher returns than investing in fossil fuels.

“I’m not trying to take them off of the divestment, but I said, ‘Certainly show some data.’ And they did,” Himmelstein said. “And the board has made investments in renewable energy since then.”

Himmelstein confirmed that there has been no divestment from the college’s existing fossil fuel holdings, although he said there have been no new investments in fossil fuels in the past three years. He said he is open to increasing transparency around the college’s investments.

“I think being more transparent, I’d be certainly supportive of and can talk to the Investment Committee about seeing what ways we can do that,” Himmelstein said.

The former SJP member said they believe the college puts an undue burden on students to find solutions on their own and force the college to act in line with its mission statement values.

“Ultimately, that’s not our job,” the former SJP member said. “They have finance officers for that, that is their job, they get paid to do it.”

Meghan Lee contributed reporting for this article.

This article was updated Aug. 31, 2021 to anonymize information about SJP members.