Some Universities Chose Violence. Others Responded to Protests by Considering Student Demands.

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One of the largest schools in the California State University system will pursue an investment strategy divested from “corporations & funds that profit from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and activities that violate fundamental human rights.” The announcement from Sacramento State late Tuesday night came nine days into a protest encampment on the school’s campus, as students called on their university to cut financial ties with Israel.

“I think it’s so significant what we did here because we’re essentially raising the bar for all universities,” sophomore Michael Lee-Chang told The Intercept. “We’ve had every single one of our demands met, and that’s how it should be. We’re here for Palestine, and student power shouldn’t be underestimated. I can’t state just how excited I am and can’t wait to see how our win helps other campuses reach their victories too.”

Sacramento State is one of at least seven universities nationwide to agree to at least some of student protesters’ demands regarding complicity with Israel’s violence in Palestine. University endowments, which can run up to the billions of dollars, are often operated with little transparency into direct or indirect investments. The students’ demands vary in specificity from school to school, but broadly speaking, they are asking their institutions for full transparency into those investments and to divest from weapons manufacturers or other companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine, as well as from Israeli institutions themselves.

By and large, the schools that came to an agreement with student protesters avoided the spectacle of violence that has become commonplace over the last three weeks, as university administrators crack down on speech and invite police to brutalize their own students and faculty.

“For the last seven months, we have watched the movement toward a liberated Palestine only grow stronger. There is a shift, divestment from Israel’s genocide of Palestinians will become a mainstream demand, and no amount of police violence and militarism at student encampments can turn the tide that has arrived,” Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the advocacy group U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told The Intercept. “Morally conscious people are not backing down because we understand we the people hold the power to create real policy changes, and we will win.”

Such a shift was spurred in part at Columbia University. While President Minouche Shafik last week announced the end of negotiations with student protesters and sealed off the campus to almost all but the New York Police Department, students there are watching with cautious optimism as other schools work to find common ground with their students.

Columbia student Johannah King-Slutzky — who noted that Vanderbilt students were the first to launch an encampment protest, with less media fanfare — said protesters forcing divestment from Israel as a topic of conversation in the halls of power is an essential step toward actual divestment. “That’s a huge, huge win for the movement.”

“Human Rights-Based Approach”

Sacramento State issued three policy updates on Tuesday night, in response to students who began a Gaza solidarity encampment on April 29. In a presidential memo, the school said that it “opposes and condemns all acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, terrorism and other activities that violate fundamental human rights.” The memo also described protests and political action as “cornerstones of higher education and democracy” and affirmed students’ rights to engage in peaceful activism. The school also said that it unequivocally condemns hate and bias in all forms.

In an update to the school’s “policy on policies,” Sacramento State stated that it “will not engage in any activity or enter into any agreement that conflicts with” its opposition to genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other human rights violations.

The school also instated an investments policy that directs its auxiliary organizations, including its philanthropy and fundraising foundation, to “investigate socially responsible investment strategies which include not having direct investments in corporations and funds that profit from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and activities that violate fundamental human rights.” The school noted that it does not currently have such direct investments and committed to keeping it that way, as well as to investigate a similar strategy for indirect investments. “We will pursue human rights-based approach to investments.”

The Intercept asked the university whether Israel falls under the criteria described, and a spokesperson said the school would release additional information soon.

Lee-Chang, the Sacramento State student, said that it’s not lost on students that university “President Luke Wood is risking a lot by doing this,” noting that school presidents are at-will staff of the CSU Chancellor and Board of Trustees. “He never called the police on us and was relatively friendly throughout the entire process.”

About 450 miles south of Sacramento, the University of California, Riverside initially responded to a protest encampment by acknowledging that the “suffering in Gaza since the start of this war has been unimaginable” — a note that organizers said set a positive tone for negotiations. On Friday, the school agreed to take several steps to infuse transparency into its investments process.

That includes posting all public information on university investments to the school’s website, with the eventual intention of full disclosure of all investments; the instatement of a task force including students and faculty to explore the removal of the school’s endowment from the management of the University of California Investments Office, “and the investment of said endowment in a manner that will be financially and ethically sound for the university with consideration to the companies involved in arms manufacturing and delivery.”

The deal also included the “ongoing review of Sabra Hummus,” a company that is targeted for boycotts because its owner, the Strauss Group, supported the Israeli Defense Forces in the past. The school also agreed to modify its study abroad program processes “to ensure compliance with UC’s Anti-Discriminatory Policies” and said that its business school had discontinued multiple “global programs,” including one that took students to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. (While that program no longer appears on the business school’s website, the other programs that were said to be discontinued are listed with “dates forthcoming.”)

“This is not the end for Palestinian advocacy at UCR, this is not the end of UCR’s complicity,” organizers said in a post celebrating the agreement. “We will continue to hold our administration accountable.”

Coast to Coast

Students and administrators at Evergreen State College, a public college in Washington, also reached a consequential agreement in the wake of an encampment protest. Evergreen is the alma mater of American nonviolence activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 as she protested the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza.

Last week, the school issued a memorandum of understanding instating a string of committees — staffed by faculty, students, and university staff — focused on defining social responsible investing and addressing divestment from companies that profit from human rights violations and the occupation of Palestinian territories.

Evergreen also issued a statement defending speech rights and calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and immediate, unconditional release of all hostages. The school pledged not to approve study abroad programs to Israel, Gaza, or the West Bank amid the ongoing war, nor to regions where students are denied entry based on their identity as Palestinians or Jews.

Evergreen senior Andreas Malunat said that students and faculty are committed to working through the task forces and reporting on progress toward divestment. The community’s commitment to rallying in solidarity with Palestine is embodied not only by Corrie’s activism, Malunat said, but also the Olympia Food Co-op becoming the first grocery store in the country to boycott Israeli goods back in 2010.

“This has been a crucial place of organizing on campuses because all of the universities have been destroyed in Gaza. We’ve seen college administrators call in the police like at Columbia University where the NYPD has arrested hundreds of students and faculty rather than engaging with their own student body and divest from Israel,” Malunat wrote to The Intercept. “By meeting student demands, US universities can form a united front to end our complicity in genocide and the military industrial complex.”

On the East Coast, both Brown University and Rutgers University agreed to discuss their investment processes with students. The commitments from Brown, where students had previously staged a hunger strike and sit-in protests, were more concrete and include a board vote in the fall on students’ divestment proposal and a guarantee that campus affiliates who participated in the encampment protest will not face expulsion or suspension. Rutgers, meanwhile, acknowledged that a divestment proposal offered earlier was undergoing a university investment review process, and said administrators will meet with student representatives to discuss the request.

Persistence and Results

While many of the agreements were reached without significant physical escalations on campus, at least two schools that brought in the police to clear out protest encampments later reached a deal with their students.

Four days after Northwestern University police tried to break up the demonstration, protesters and the school reached an agreement that affirms students’ free speech rights and reestablishes the school’s Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility, a body comprising students, faculty, and staff that will serve as “a conduit to engagement with the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees.” The school also said it would fund visiting, “at risk” Palestinian faculty and students and provide additional support for Jewish and Muslim students within faith-focused campus offices.

 Civil defense teams and citizens continue search and rescue operations after an airstrike hits the building belonging to the Maslah family during the 32nd day of Israeli attacks in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza on November 7, 2023. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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Israel’s War on Gaza

Students at the University of Minnesota, one of the most populous public universities in the country, secured portions of their demands after over a week of protests, during which the school’s police cleared out the encampment. The school agreed to disclose information about its investments and to allow the students to present on divestment in front of the Board of Regents. On Wednesday, the university began disclosing its investments — revealing $2.4 million vested in publicly traded Israel-based companies, and another $2.6 million in other companies of interest, such as Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing. The percentages are a drop in the bucket of the school’s $2.27 billion endowment.

Third-year biology student Adam Abu told Minnesota Public Radio that the “pennies to the dollar” scale of the investments should make divestment more easy.

The most prominent and successful wave of university divestment campaigns centered around apartheid South Africa, and in more recent years, schools have also agreed to divest from fossil fuel companies. Yet the idea of doing the same with regards to Israel — efforts that began in the 2000s and expanded in earnest in the 2010s — has been out of reach for many activists. As a growing number of colleges around the country begin to take the demand more seriously, student organizers also say this is just the beginning.

King-Slutzky, the Columbia student, said students must remain clear-eyed about their goals and undistracted by promises without material commitments to divest, ideally ones that name specific corporations. “We know university administrations lie to protect their investments in death. It’s our job to cut through bureaucratic gobbledygook to extract financial commitments as concrete as the very real genocide and Rafah ground invasion ramping up as we speak.”

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