Columbia activists are united behind BDS

February 9, 2016

Samuel Falcone-Coffin reports from New York City on an exciting joint campaign by Palestinian and Jewish student groups at Columbia University.

IN EARLY February, the Columbia University chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) issued a set of demands and launched a joint campaign calling on the university to divest its stocks, funds and endowment from Israeli apartheid.

On February 4, just days after the campaign's launch, Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) held a public meeting titled "BDS 101" to announce the demands and offer an argument for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as a strategy for building solidarity with Palestne. Activists and non-activists alike filled the meeting room to capacity--the turnout was so large that many interested students had to be turned away.

This interest in the campaign is at least in part a consequence of years of organizing by SJP and, more recently, JVP around Israeli Apartheid Week to raise awareness on campus and lay the groundwork to launch such a campaign.

SJP's tireless work in the past has extended beyond Apartheid Week to educational events on the long history of solidarity between the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the African American struggle as well as other antiracist struggles. A specific example of this sort of organizing was SJP's hosting of a panel discussion on Black-Palestinian solidarity after the non-indictment of Mike Brown's police murderer in 2014.

The Columbia BDS campaign in solidarity with Palestine is following in the wake of a prison divestment struggle
The Columbia BDS campaign in solidarity with Palestine is following in the wake of a prison divestment struggle

Jeff Jacobs, an organizer for Columbia SJP, said in an interview that there were two reasons to start a BDS campaign at Columbia: first, the increasing momentum of the global movement, and second, the tradition of antiracist divestment campaigns at Columbia:

We decided to start the Columbia University Apartheid Divest campaign after many confidence-building discussions between the two groups regarding the inspiring momentum and victories that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has achieved both domestically and across the globe, and discussions about the inspiring tradition of grassroots activism throughout our past.

For example, after a long student- and worker-led struggle, Columbia became the first Ivy League university to divest from South Africa's apartheid regime back in 1985, and just recently, Columbia became the first American university to divest in general from the exploitative private-prison industry, thanks to the tireless work of the Columbia Prison Divest campaign.

NATIONALLY AND internationally, the momentum of the international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel has had an uptick in recent years since the movement's formation in 2005.

Its founding principles are modeled around the divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and early '90s. And the demands of the BDS movement are designed to ensure that no segment of the Palestinian population displaced and marginalized by Israel apartheid is left out.

The three key demands of the BDS movement are: one, end the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the Israel's apartheid wall; two, recognize the fundamental rights and full equality of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and three, respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

The launch of the Columbia divestment campaign came after a hopeful few years for the larger BDS movement.

The United Nations reported that BDS and outrage at Israel's brutal assault on Gaza were critical reasons for the 50 percent drop in direct investment in the state of Israel in 2014.

In the summer of 2015, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) made history as a major American trade union deciding to support BDS. The year before, the American Presbyterian Church voted to divest from Israeli occupation on ethical grounds.

Currently, United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents academic workers in the University of California system, is in the midst of a struggle to get the UAW International to respect the democratic decision of the local to support BDS.

CUAD has chosen to specifically target for divestment eight corporations that are directly involved in profiting from Israeli apartheid: Caterpillar, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Elbit Systems, Mekorot, Hapoalim, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

In June, Columbia University's board of directors voted to divest from Corrections Corporation of America and G4S after students with Columbia Prison Divest organized direct-action protests such as sit-ins. This demonstration of the political power of student organizing and its ultimate victory was unprecedented, as Columbia became the first American university to divest its endowment from the prison-industrial complex.

CUAD has also situated itself in a tradition of divestment predating the success of prison divestment--specifically, the 1985 movement against South African apartheid.

Columbia sold off its holdings of South African stocks after a three-year struggle on campus that included a successful blockade of a campus building by the Coalition for a Free South Africa.

CUAD WAS also launched at a unique moment in the history of Columbia activism. This fall, a network of left groups organizing around different issues on campus was formed. Calling itself the Barnard-Columbia Solidarity Network, it put forward a set of collective demands on the administration.

Within days of the launch, various left groups on campus released statements explaining the relationship between the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and their respective on-campus struggles.

No Red Tape, an anti-sexual assault organization involved in a campaign for a 24-hour rape crisis center on Columbia's otherwise lavish campus, said in a statement:

We recognize that sexual violence is intimately connected with colonialism, imperialism and other forms of state violence. As shown by the stories of Rasmea Odeh and countless Palestinian survivors, sexual violence has routinely been used as a tool of oppression against Palestinian women.

Student-Worker Solidarity, a campus labor-activist group organizing for an on-campus minimum wage of $15 an hour for federal work-study students, also voted to support CUAD's campaign:

From the 1936 general strikes against early Zionist settlers and British occupiers to those of the First Intifada, the resilience of Palestinian workers has long taught us that decolonization and labor struggle cannot be separated. It is the same inhumane and relentless drive for profit which corporatizes our university and pays workers starvation wages that fuels the necessity for United States and U.S.-backed imperial projects abroad.

CUAD also highlighted the need for solidarity between the struggle at Columbia and the poisoning of the low-income, predominantly Black city of Flint, Michigan. Jacobs pointed out that the "disgraceful situation that came to light in Flint recently, wherein the municipal government callously poisoned its own citizens, harkens back to the repeated poisoning of Palestinian water sources by members of the Yishuv in the 1940s."

CUAD also noted Israel's long history of environmental racism, dating back to the redirection of the Jordan River away from refugee camps in the West Bank during the Nakba of 1948. Israel's state-owned water company Mekorot carried out this redirection and is today one of the eight firms targeted by CUAD for divestment.

THE LAUNCH of CUAD is a vital and courageous step in holding Columbia University to its self-proclaimed moral commitment to social, political and economic justice while simultaneously bringing the centrality of the struggle for justice in Palestine to the forefront of political discussion.

Within days of its launch, CUAD faced the predictable onslaught of well-funded and powerful Zionist groups on campus--with students from pro-Israel organizations reportedly tearing down flyers for public meetings about BDS.

At a time when student activists are under attack from the right as "coddled anti-free speech crusaders," this campaign demonstrates clearly that our side is the one that stands for free expression and dialogue, regardless of viewpoint or financial influence.

CUAD aims at nothing less than pressing all organizations committed to social justice--including groups taking up labor issues, opposition to sexual assault, climate justice and issues specific to various communities of color--to assess the realities of their political situations and analyze the relationship between the Zionist project in Palestine and their own struggle.

As Jacobs said, "We're hoping to maximize our campaign's impact and chance for victory in our active effort to raise awareness regarding the linkages between the oppression of the indigenous Palestinian people by the Israeli apartheid regime and other instances of oppression both domestically and across the globe."

This political analysis--to compellingly argue that a just Palestine is central in the struggle for a better world--is what it will take to grow our ranks and ultimately build a force strong enough to win.

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