Following the Oglethorpe University Student government’s passage of a resolution calling for the school to divest from the Israeli occupation, the university’s Board of Trustees issued the following statement:
“The Oglethorpe University Board of Trustees Finance Committee has reviewed the resolution submitted by the Oglethorpe Students for Justice in Palestine and has decided to continue with our current investment policy. The university values any efforts by our students to make a difference in the world, and encourages constructive, open dialogue among its students and greater campus community.”
On April 30, Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia became the first university in the southeastern United States to successfully pass an Israeli divestment resolution, a huge victory for supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as adversaries have shown renewed vigor in pushing for anti-BDS legislation in an attempt to stop the tactic. As president and founder of the Oglethorpe chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP-OU), I could not be more proud of my university and fellow students for taking a stance against the systematic injustice and humiliation suffered by the Palestinian people on a daily basis. Given the historic nature of this victory, I would like to provide some background information on our organization and the campaign in general. More importantly, however, I would like to use this opportunity to encourage the university’s investment committee and administration to heed the call of our student body and actively divest from the companies found to be complicit in Israel’s crimes.
We founded the Oglethorpe chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine in February 2014, shortly before Israel would unleash havoc on Gaza, yet again, with even more destruction and devastation than the previous offensives. The summer 2014 assault, known as Operation Protective Edge, claimed the lives of over 2,100 Palestinians, over 70% of which were civilians. Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have sadly become accustomed to the systematic violation of their human rights, basic dignity, and any meek sense of security one may be able to foster in such an environment.
It was after my first trip to the West Bank that I was initially inspired to create the group, where I saw firsthand the conditions and oppression the Palestinians were forced to endure. Upon returning to the United States, and after much deliberation on how best we could show our solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, we decided to found a chapter of SJP at Oglethorpe University.
Students for Justice in Palestine is a nationwide, non-hierarchical student organization with over 80 chapters working independently towards the same goal: an end to Israel’s violation of human rights and a just resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Reading on the success and organization of various SJP chapters across North America, I was inspired to continue the struggle to educate and advocate in our student community by creating such a student organization. This seemed the most effective way as students to make a tangible impact on our community; and to this we succeeded. Our success culminated in the passing of the first divestment resolution in the southeastern United States.
When Oglethorpe’s SJP was founded, there was one other active SJP chapter in Georgia, at the University of Georgia at Athens (UGA). There are now SJP chapters at Oglethorpe, UGA, Emory University, Georgia State University, and three within the Atlanta University Center including Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, and Spelman College. Students at Georgia Southern University and Berry College are currently laying the preparatory groundwork to establish chapters as well. Recent years have seen a massive surge in the establishment of Palestine solidarity groups on Georgia campuses, which have drawn generously upon the help, guidance, and support of local community groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Joining Hands for Justice.
From the group’s inception, we worked extensively with these groups and others, building community networks and coordinating joint events across Greater Atlanta. SJP-OU co-organized the first ever annual Atlanta Palestine Film Festival in 2014, and hosted a number of films and discussion sessions. These on-campus activities helped to foster a supportive student network and raise awareness on the conflict. As we petitioned for support for our divestment, we distributed keffiyehs to hundreds of students, who wore them with pride.
These activities worked to build the SJP presence on campus in preparation for our largest and most important project – a divestment resolution. After meeting with Oglethorpe’s CFO and head of the investment committee, we were allowed access to Oglethorpe’s financial information. Our research into Oglethorpe’s investment found a number of funds with holdings in companies directly complicit in Israel’s violation of human rights including Caterpillar, United Technologies, Bezeq Israeli Telecom, Bank Leumi Israel, Israel Discount Bank, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Hewlett-Packard Company, Northrop Grumman Corporation, and General Dynamics Corporation.
G4S Secure Solutions is also a great concern of ours. Many students at Oglethorpe were shocked to hear last summer that the university abandoned its previous security company and instead contracted G4S Secure Solutions, the largest security firm in the world that holds a more than questionable record on human rights abuses, to handle our own campus security. G4S Secure Solutions is known to provide security equipment to prisons in Israel and the West Bank, such as the Ketziot, Megiddo, and Damon, which hold Palestinian prisoners in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition of the transfer of prisoners from occupied territory to that of the occupier. The al-Jalame and Megiddo prisons, also supplied by G4S, are notorious for detaining Palestinian children.
Students of Palestinian descent were particularly dismayed to hear of the new contract, which was announced by email after the deal was struck. For this reason and more, we see the issue of our university’s financial complicity as not only a violation of our liberal arts values, but also as a negligent affront to those of our students whose families and friends suffer the consequences in occupied Palestine, effectively through their own tuition dollars.
With a list compiled, we wanted to make sure to include these specific companies in the divestment resolution to make our aims very clear – Oglethorpe’s student body, we believed, would vote to reject the university’s financial support for companies helping Israel to maintain its illegal occupation and abuse the rights of the Palestinian populace. On this point we were correct in our assumption, Oglethorpe stands with Palestine.
Politically, passing the resolution was a slightly more complicated. When the resolution was first proposed on April 23, what was set to be the last SGA meeting of the semester, it immediately came under scrutiny. One senator claimed she had never seen the resolution and a few others insisted that the senate refrain from voting on such a document without reaching out to the students for input. This was despite campus campaigning by SJP and a petition with formidable support from the student body; in fact, more participants signed the resolution than had voted in the previous student government elections. SGA did not consider other resolutions with such scrutiny, as the body then deliberated the allocation of $8,000 (not a small amount for a university with 1,200 students enrolled) of student funds to support 10 students’ fully-funded travel, lodging, and car rental for a video documentary competition in Los Angeles, without notifying or “reaching out to the students” on the issue.
We had worked tirelessly to develop a plan of implementation in multiple meetings throughout the semester with the administration and investment committee. We discussed setting up a meeting and forum, in which we could put our divestment case forward to the investment committee for consideration – thus opening a dialogue on campus directly between the investment committee and our student body. Despite these efforts, one senator made the claim that we had no “action plan” in place and hurried to table the resolution until the fall 2015 semester. This was enough to convince other senators that the resolution could wait until the following semester.
Fortunately for our efforts, SGA President Ruwa Romman scheduled a new meeting the following week to reexamine the resolution and hold a vote before the end of the semester. SJP sought to increase outreach and information on the resolution before the next attempt, distributing the document on social media. During the second round, we encouraged senators to consider the historic implications on the university in voting down a resolution calling for the protection of human rights. Our outreach, combined with the help of supporting senators, was able to make the impact needed. A vote was held the next week on April 30, which passed the resolution with near unanimity. One nay and one abstention were recorded.
The timing of our victory is especially important as anti-BDS legislation continues to pop up around the United States. Oglethorpe’s near unanimous support for the resolution flies in the face of those seeking to limit our constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression. I believe that these groups will continue to fail to criminalize our non-violent protest of Israel’s aggression. The global network supporting the rights of the Palestinian people continues to build momentum and apply pressure to Israel to make real concessions. It was popular mobilization among the international community that ended South Africa’s oppressive system of Apartheid, and so it will be the same that brings a just resolution to this conflict and the restoration of Palestinian dignity, the right of self-determination, and freedom from the insecurity of occupation and siege.