A BDS victory at Barnard

April 24, 2018

Following a strong victory for a BDS resolution at Barnard College in New York City, Emmaline Bennett describes the ingredients that went into this successful struggle.

STUDENTS AT Barnard College have voted in favor of a referendum to divest from eight companies complicit in Israeli apartheid.

The divestment referendum held last week won by a large margin, with the support of more than 64 percent of students who voted. Some 1,153 people--almost half of the student body--took part in the vote.

The referendum was initiated and advocated by students in Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a coalition uniting Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

This coalition was formed in 2016 with the aim of pressuring the university to "divest its stocks, funds and endowment from companies that profit 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."

Over the past two years, the Apartheid Divest coalition has been central in organizing around the issue of Palestinian self-determination at Columbia and Barnard, the women's college affiliated with Columbia.

A wall of protest against Israeli apartheid created by students at Barnard College and Columbia University
A wall of protest against Israeli apartheid created by students at Barnard College and Columbia University

The corporations targeted by the referendum include Hyundai Heavy Industries, which provides excavators used to demolish Palestinian homes; Bank Hapoalim, which finances the construction of settlements in the West Bank; Mekorot, which restricts water access for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories; Caterpillar, which supplies the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) with equipment used to construct settlements, establish military checkpoints and build the Apartheid wall; Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Elbit Systems, which supply the IDF with drones, missiles and other weapons used against Palestinian civilians; and Hewlett Packard, which maintains an identification system to enforce apartheid.

The referendum doesn't guarantee that Barnard's administration will actually divest from these eight corporations. The administration has already released a statement saying that it will not respect the democratic vote of students nor "take action in response to this referendum."

Pressuring the university is the challenge ahead for activists as they celebrate a major victory in showing overwhelming opposition to Israel's apartheid.

"The referendum passed by a huge margin," said Yasmeen Abdel Majeed, a Columbia student and SJP member. "To me, this shows conclusively that the Barnard community is absolutely in favor of divestment. The university must follow through and respect the will of the student body and democratic process."

BEFORE LAST week's divestment vote at Barnard, the most recent divestment victory on the Columbia campus was led by Columbia Prison Divest, which successfully pressured the Columbia administration to become the first university to divest from private prisons.

One of the prison companies targeted by the student-led movement was GS4, a firm that maintains patrols on the U.S.-Mexico border as well as prisons and checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Support for divestment at Barnard reflects a growing movement in support of Palestinian self-determination on U.S. college campuses.

"The tide is shifting slowly in our favor," said Abdel Majeed. "I think it's because people are coming to recognize the situation as a colonial one: of a racist ethnonationalist settler state enacting apartheid and ethnic cleansing on an Indigenous population, rather than the two-nation-states-on-an-even-playing-field false narrative."

Students at more than 50 U.S. colleges have voted to divest from or boycott companies complicit in Israeli apartheid, often by overwhelming margins.

This shows that college students (and many more people besides) are increasingly unwilling to support a state that imprisons children, demolishes homes and murders unarmed protesters.

Even more importantly, many are willing to follow through on their opposition to the Israeli state's atrocities with mass action and political mobilization.

The recent victories won by the Apartheid Divest coalition at Barnard wouldn't have been possible without the wider boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that has been gaining strength in the U.S since 2004.

Activists in this movement have called for a nonviolent boycott and divestment campaign against the Israeli state modeled on the movement that helped bring down South African apartheid in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The three main demands of the BDS movement are: 1) ending Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and dismantling the Apartheid Wall; 2) ensuring full and equal rights for the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and 3) promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

THE SUCCESS of the divestment vote also wouldn't have been possible without the growth of SJP chapters on college campuses throughout the country.

SJP activists at Columbia have faced censorship and threats of suspension from the university administration, as well as intimidation from right-wing Zionist groups. But this hasn't stopped them from organizing events and protests aimed at challenging the Israeli occupation.

Last year, for instance, students in the Apartheid Divest coalition protested a speech by Danny Danon, a far-right Israeli ambassador who has repeatedly called for war crimes against Palestinian civilians.

Every year during Israeli Apartheid Week, SJP and JVP activists set up a mock Apartheid Wall in front of Low Library, the main administrative building on campus, in order to draw attention to the conditions faced by Palestinians living under a brutal military occupation.

In the past few weeks, SJP activists have held rallies in solidarity with the hundreds of people who have been killed or injured in Gaza since the beginning of the Great March of Return.

The events, protests and demonstrations organized by students in Columbia University Apartheid Divest have played a crucial role in building a left wing on campus that stands in solidarity with Palestinians.

The left can celebrate the divestment vote at Barnard and work to achieve similar victories for the BDS movement on other campuses around the country. So long as the profits of multinational corporations, along with U.S. imperial interests, remain tied up with the Israeli occupation, so long will the system of occupation and apartheid continue.

Only by challenging U.S. empire and its military-industrial complex at its very heart--through divestment and boycotts, as well as through protests and demonstrations--can we hope to put an end to the occupation, and create the conditions for self-determination in Palestine.

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