If you were traveling downtown on Lexington Avenue on Thursday, March 22 at rush hour and looked up while crossing 67th Street, you might have found the following declaration in big bold letters looking back down: “CUNY Must Divest”.
Student members of the Palestine Solidarity Alliance (PSA) at Hunter College, one of the largest of the twenty-five City University of New York (CUNY) colleges, took to one of the four windowed “skybridges” that connect Hunter’s buildings, with signs calling for the university system to divest from US companies complicit in Israel’s ongoing violations of Palestinian human rights. The list is comprised of the usual suspects including weapons manufacturers Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and General Electric; technology and security giants Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and G4S; and construction supply and engineering firms Cemex and Caterpillar.
The act drew the attention of the busy campus and crowded sidewalks — one of many Israeli Apartheid week events, which culminated with the soft release of PSA’s divestment resolution.
“[The public display] is a good way to attract attention because people in general do not know where their money is going” said Pooja Chopra, a Hunter student and PSA member. “We all pay our tuition, we all get our reimbursement checks [but] we don’t really know what’s going on.”
Chopra, who studies English at the intersections of race and class, told Mondoweiss that as a CUNY student, a member of the Hunter community and as a born and raised Brooklynite, she has a right to know where both her tuition money and tax money is going (as a public university system, CUNY is funded in large part by taxes).
“I definitely don’t want it going to the rape of Palestinian women; I don’t want it going to children being traumatized every single day, their homes being taken away from them,” she said.
A day before the protest, PSA made public their Resolution Demanding CUNY to Adopt a Socially Responsible Investment Policy (PDF), a landmark first step towards pressuring CUNY to end its ties with companies complicit in violation of international laws and standards.
The resolution is all the more significant at CUNY. The New York City public university system, the largest in the country, is known for its stoic administrative and student support for Israel. Though not unfounded – considering when the CUNY system was established, Jewish New Yorkers, historically a base of support for Israel, were barred from most other universities and colleges throughout the state and country — the legacy of institutional Zionism does hinder campus Palestine solidarity organizing.
The resolution comes less than two years after New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 executive order outlawing any boycott of Israel in the state. Opposition from the governor could be a contentious part of the fight as the governor appoints ten of the seventeen trustees on the CUNY Board.
Following the skybridge action, PSA hosted a panel discussion on intergroup organizing on Hunter’s campus.
Joining PSA co-founder Rani Allan were Sabrina Rich of the Coalition for the Revitalization of Asian American Studies at Hunter, or CRAASH and John Aderounmu, Chairperson of the University Student Senate and only student member on the Board of Trustees.
Although Aderounmu did not participate on the panel in either of these capacities, his position in student government could go a long way toward convincing the CUNY Board of Trustees they have a responsibility to divest.
Any university investment in human rights abuses Aderounmu told Mondoweiss “would be against everything CUNY should stand for.”
“There has to be a social and moral compass,” he said. As a public university that prides itself on affordability and accessibility Aderounmu added, its investments have to reflect a “general understanding of what it means to be a human being.”
But no matter what, it will be an uphill battle.
CUNY’s investment portfolio is worth roughly $250 million. The exact percentages invested in the ten listed companies are obscured but there is no doubt they comprise a profitable portion of CUNY’s investments.
Yasmin Hassan, the other co-founder of PSA who wrote the resolution with Rani Allan, told me they painstakingly and with “a great deal of consideration” developed it over a number of months.
Yasmin said both herself and Allan were fully aware of “the weight that [the resolution] holds for not only the future of how CUNY functions in relation to human rights, but also for the future of Palestinians and their right to return home, their right to freedom and self-determination, as well as their right to be treated as human beings.”
The two sought advice from Jewish Voice for Peace, taking extreme care to write it in a way that does not alienate people and relies on credible sources.
After reading it for the first time, Chopra told Mondoweiss she was struck by the way it is crafted. It presents the issue in a way so that “people who aren’t really aware of the situation can be spoon-fed.”
It gives “you the information and [lets] you decide that for yourself” Chopra said. “And it’s kind of inescapable.”
If it passes, Yasmin told Mondoweiss, she believes it “will stand as a precedent for not only other educational institutions to follow, but also for countries and world leaders to look to as an example.”
The twenty-four point resolution establishes precedent for divestment, noting the CUNY Board of Trustees disinvested from Apartheid South Africa in 1984 and big tobacco in 1991.
It notes that as recently as February 2017, the student government passed a resolution designating all of CUNY a sanctuary university, thus barring Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) from its campuses. ICE and US law enforcement in general maintain an open tactical exchange with Israel.
It calls attention to the many United Nations condemnations of Israel’s actions. Finally, the resolution implores the CUNY Board of Trustees “to adopt a consistently Socially Responsible Investment policy” in which CUNY assets are not invested in companies and corporations “which significantly participate in violations of human rights and violations of international law”.
Although aware of the controversy the resolution is likely to stir when introduced in the next month or so, PSA says it is prepared for whatever happens. Their call for divestment is matched by a call for reinvestment in socially responsible companies; green energy for example.
“CUNY has a responsibility to make sure that every one of their students feels safe on campus and that their wellbeing is being protected and safeguarded, and that’s not happening right now,” Allan said during the panel. “That’s why we are demanding for CUNY to disengage from these corporations.”