Student activists from the University of South Florida (USF) pressed their school’s foundation this month to heed a 10,000 person-strong petition and divest from companies linked to the Israeli occupation.
For months, members of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter at the school have collected signatures urging divestment from companies like Caterpillar, which sells bulldozers to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and G4S, a private company which operates prisons where Palestinians are confined. The group says the petition, which came after a stymied drive to put the issue to a student referendum, is the largest ever from a Florida university–and that the signatures represent about 25% of the whole student body. The effort has garnered favorable media coverage from Tampa Bay Times columnist Bill Maxwell.
On May 5th, during a meeting with the USF Foundation, which oversees the university’s investments, SJP members urged the creation of a committee to make socially responsible investments and to divest from corporations profiting from contracts with the Israeli military.
“It’s appalling that our university does not have a policy requiring investment only in ethically-sound companies,” the SJP chapter president, Ahmad Saadaldin, said in a statement announcing the meeting. “This gives us students the impression that our school values profits over our duties as global citizens.”
Speaking to Tampa-based radio station WMNF about the meeting, SJP member Malak Fakhoury said that foundation officials told the group’s members they would explore the information they were given by SJP. “It wasn’t a meeting where we could measure the progress of any success because it takes gradual steps to achieve anything real in this regard but it was definitely a success to speak to them,” Fakhoury told the radio station. “There was really no emotion so it’s hard to judge what they were thinking.”
It promises to be an uphill battle at the school. The effort has faced opposition from Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, the head of the school’s Hillel, who told the Tampa Tribune that SJP has “gone overboard” and that “this is anti-Semitism.” As USF SJP member Omar Erchid reported for Mondoweiss, the school’s president, who condemned the American Studies Association boycott of Israel, is co-manager of a foundation that invests in Israeli banks that finance West Bank settlements. And the USF provost went on a trip to Israel this year to explore bolstering links to Israeli universities.
The pro-divestment petition drive was launched after an effort to have the student body vote on the issue faltered in 2013. While SJP says the majority of students voted in favor of divestment, the student government decertified the results.
The USF debate over Israel comes at the end of an academic year punctuated by repeated efforts to get student governments to endorse divestment. While most student government bodies voted down proposals to divest, a measure did pass at Loyola (before being vetoed) and at the University of California, Riverside.