The movement for divestment at Hampshire college has been led by the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. I emailed Brian Van Slyke (right), a SJP member, to learn more about the campaign, what lessons have been learned and how he got involved in the issue. Below are his answers. We hope to carry more similar profiles. – Adam Horowitz
I’m 21 and I’m from the Chicago land area, in my third year here at Hampshire. I got involved with this issue because my mother is a Jewish Activist back home, so I basically grew up on it. Last year I saw that Students for Justice in Palestine was one of the most well organized and dedicated group of people on campus, and I knew that I had some good qualities I could bring to the group. I’m the elected Student Trustee at Hampshire (where one of the few campuses to have such a thing), and so I knew that if divestment was going to get through, it was going to have to go through the Board of Trustees in some capacity.
I’m not sure how exactly the campaign came together, it got started a few months before I got involved, but this call for divestment has been going on at Hampshire on and off for the past 10 years. This specific campaign took about two years. We focused on divestment and a few other things in our campaign (such as academic exchange programs with Palestinian universities) because we were really responding to a call from Palestinian civil society for methods of non-violent resistance; in this case we were specifically focusing on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions efforts. We knew that this was something we could rally the campus around if we educated the community and got people involved.
I think the lessons that we learned is that you’ve got to go at this from every angle. You’ve got to do community organizing, you’ve got to get students represented in high decision making positions, you’ve got to educate the community, you’ve got to organize rallies and protests, and exhaust every avenue for non-violent action. On top of that, a successful group has to be patient but also self-critical. There’s going to be a lot of resistance and a lot of people smearing you, but you have to be ready for that mentally. There’s folks trying to discredit us now, but our audience knows the truth, and we know that this is a part of a larger movement. This is bigger than Hampshire.
The great challenges and obstacles come from many problems that student groups face: the fact that at the end of every year you disband and when you come back you have to pick up from where you left off. People are also going to criticize everything you say and do when working to end the occupation, and reaching your desired goal is going to look pretty much impossible. It’s not easy. It’s draining, tense, and monumental. But, as Hampshire students have now proven, it is possible.
I think this specific campaign was successful because Hampshire has its legacy of being the first college to divest from Apartheid South Africa. That is something that this college and community treasures deeply (although, ironically enough, the administration attempted to depoliticize that back in the 1970s as well). We knew that Hampshire students faced the same kind of name calling and opposition then, but that they overcame and helped spark a movement. We had to live up to our history.