By Andrea D’Cruz
Hampshire College, Massachusetts were years ahead of the activist curve even in 1977 when they became the first American institution of higher education to divest from South Africa. Some three decades later Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine (HSJP) launched a campaign to press their university to divest from companies involved in Israeli occupation and violence against civilians. In doing so they called upon the legacy of that historic anti-Apartheid move, which Ilana Rossoff, a HSJP activist, explains was "a huge motivator behind why divestment was such an imperative and that it was possible." After two years of mobilizing popular support–their petition gathered 800 signatures, from students, faculty and alumni, quite a number for a school of 1,350–that possibility was finally realized and Hampshire made history (and controversy) again as the first college to divest from Israeli occupation–an injustice whose architecture many have compared to that of apartheid.
Alan Dershowitz was so incensed by the news that he took it upon himself to call up HSJP members individually with the threat, "I’m starting a boycott of Hampshire College and of you personally." A creepy experience to be sure. Still, if you manage to rile up Dershowitz enough for him to personally get on your case (Against Israel) then you know you’re doing the right thing, and well.
On the other side of the sanity divide HSJP received statements of support from Palestinians, Israeli anti-occupation activists (including the Shministim), Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Nation columnist Naomi Klein, who compelling put the case for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in the magazine’s January 26 edition.
Since their victory in February 2009 HSJP have also seen requests from around twenty campuses across the country asking for advice and to share strategies and so decided to channel their divestment momentum into the first Campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Conference, which is scheduled for November 20-22. The organizers hope the conference will also help cement coordination between Palestine solidarity campus-based campaigns.
Rossoff articulates the most important reason for pushing BDS as heeding the Palestinian call for it. "We are accountable to Palestinians. As a solidarity action this is very important; Palestinians are at the heart of the oppression under occupation and their voice needs to be heard above all else to combat their systematic disenfranchisement and silencing," she says. "We need strategic measures to isolate and dissociate from Israel so that they feel the pressure to end the occupation and change their policies towards the Palestinians, including refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel."
She argues that it’s especially imperative that students push for BDS:
Students at universities engage in critical work, they engage with politics through their studies, the flip side of this is that colleges have massive investments that we should investigate and utilize in strategic ways. Higher education institutions are looked upon for their values–they have theoretical but meaningful clout, they can cause politicians to re-evaluate their actions.
It was several years before other American universities followed Hampshire’s lead on South Africa. HSJP are hoping that November’s conference might mean Israel doesn’t enjoy the same moral lag.