An uncomfortable truth that Occidental has tried to distance itself from is the direct role it took in funding South African apartheid 40 years ago. Now, when faced with the choice to divest from another oppressive regime, Occidental has once again chosen to be complicit. Jan. 28, the Board of Trustees emailed the Occidental community about their decision to reject the #OxyDivest demands, choosing to ignore Israel’s occupation of Palestine and continuing to invest in companies that fund apartheid conditions. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Occidental College has advocated for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), a campaign inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, with the purpose of economically pressuring Israel to comply with international law. Throughout our meetings with the Board of Trustees, we demanded that the college end its history of ignoring investment in human rights abuses. Ultimately, the Board of Trustees rejected divestment from Israel’s occupation, while simultaneously ignoring our other equally important demands of investment transparency and the creation of an Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investment. SJP believes that the college’s investments should reflect the values of our community and it is the Board of Trustees’ role to uphold these values in every facet of its responsibilities.
We were disappointed to find that members of the Investment Committee seem to think otherwise. In April 2019, SJP at Occidental launched a divestment campaign, cosigned by various student organizations including Associated Students of Occidental College Senate and Diversity and Equity Board (DEB). Numerous Occidental faculty also released a letter supporting our demands. Despite the visibility of our campaign, we were denied the opportunity to meet with the full Board of Trustees, as well as the full Investment Committee. Instead, we were allowed a meeting with Vice President of Communications and Institutional Initiatives Marty Sharky as late as Sept. 6, 2019, then a meeting with Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Finance, Planning and Operations Amos Himmelstein alone on Sept. 26, 2019, then with four members of the Investment Committee on Oct. 3, 2019, and then again with the same limited number of members on Jan. 27, 2020. Just as it had not mattered regarding Occidental’s investments in apartheid South Africa, in these meetings, the commitee repeatedly emphasized that the “social cost” of remaining invested in Israel did not matter to them. We replied to these statements by pointing to the college’s mission statement, but one member insisted that their committee’s only mission statement is to maximize profit.
After over a year of delaying their response, the Investment Committee emailed their rejection of divestment. In their email to the student body, the Investment Committee stated, “Occidental’s endowment should not be used as a political instrument to take a position on a geopolitical issue.” However, funding and profiting off of apartheid is, “taking a position.” The Committee’s claims of neutrality are baseless as long as the Occidental endowment is actively invested in apartheid. Despite votes in favor of our demands from both the Senate and DEB in 2019, the Committee has decided that because there are opinions on, “all sides,” the will of both an elected and appointed branch of student government need not be considered. To regard the “side” of an oppressive apartheid state as having equal or more merit than the people it is oppressing is, indeed, to side with the oppressor; to fund the oppressor destroys any pretense of neutrality. The Board claims that this decision to not divest is consistent with Occidental’s mission statement. Funding human rights violations is absolutely not consistent with Occidental’s mission statement of fostering, “a deeply rooted commitment to the public good… committing oneself to helping others,” and, “the practice of justice… and integrity.” There is no justice or integrity in the funding of an apartheid state.
Last month, prominent Israeli human rights group B’Tselem released a report classifying Israel as an apartheid regime because it, “uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another,” echoing what Palestinians have said for decades. Hagai El-Ad, the Jewish Israeli director of B’Tselem, asserts that, “Israel is not a democracy that has a temporary occupation attached to it: it is one regime between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid.”
We need look no further than Israel’s COVID-19 response for a clear example of how Palestinians are subjugated under this regime. Since the outbreak began in early 2020, Israel has continued to restrict the availability of electricity and medical supplies in Gaza, leaving hospitals under equipped to manage the health crisis. More recently, Israel has prioritized illegal settlers in the West Bank for vaccination. By choosing to maximize their profits over all else, the Investment Committee is funding these human rights violations perpetrated by an apartheid regime.
The divestment campaign represents more than just SJP; the Board of Trustees is responsible to the full coalition, the faculty, as well as the international movement to support Palestinian rights. Now that the Investment Committee has acknowledged its duty to uphold the college mission statement, we urge them to resolve their legacy of contradictory investments. While we continue to move forward with our #OxyDivest campaign, we ask you to consider making the personal choice to boycott consumer products from companies profiting off the occupation, as well as keeping an eye out for future SJP events and actions.
Organizing Committee, Students for Justice in Palestine at Occidental College