Politics

Here are the divestment demands that student protestors are making : NPR

At the heart of the student protests overtaking college campuses are demands that their universities divest from companies that do business with Israel.



ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The pro-Palestinian encampments that have recently overtaken college campuses keep spreading. At most of these schools, students have one main demand – divestment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: UC Austin, divest…

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: UC Austin, divest…

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: …From companies complicit.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: …From companies complicit.

SHAPIRO: They want their universities to sell off stock in companies the students say aid Israel’s war in Gaza. There are questions about how effective divestment is. NPR’s Adrian Florido reports from one of the schools at the center of the demand, Columbia University.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Khymani James, a third-year student at Columbia University, stood before the cameras and outlined what the students who’ve taken over a lawn at the center of campus want.

KHYMANI JAMES: We are calling upon Columbia University to divest, disclose and provide amnesty for all students and faculty.

FLORIDO: Columbia doesn’t disclose most of its investments, but student activists for decades have called on universities to be more transparent and to sell off stock in companies engaging in what they see as unethical conduct. In the case of Israel’s current war in Gaza, James said…

JAMES: This is the story of thousands of students who don’t want their tuition dollars to aid in the collective punishment and mass murder of Palestinians.

FLORIDO: Earlier this year James faced a school disciplinary hearing for saying that Zionists, quote, “don’t deserve to live.” Today, after facing criticism, he said those remarks don’t represent him or the protest movement. Columbia students have made a list of companies they say are helping Israel and that their university is invested in. They include Google and Amazon, which provide technology services to Israel’s military, Airbnb because it allows rental listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Caterpillar, whose tractors Israel’s military uses. NPR reached out to each of those companies. Only Google responded, saying that its contract with Israel is, quote, “not directed at highly sensitive, classified or military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence.” Ray Guerrero is a Columbia University grad student who’s been heavily involved in the campaign to get Columbia to divest from these companies. If the school agrees, he says…

RAY GUERRERO: Hopefully it’ll cascade to other institutions and other individuals, you know, that – we hope that other people will follow suit.

FLORIDO: He says the model is the campaign Columbia students waged in the ’80s, which convinced the school to divest tens of millions from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa.

ALISON TAYLOR: Students have got very used to the idea that you use financial mechanisms to get your will met.

FLORIDO: Alison Taylor teaches corporate accountability at NYU. More recent examples, she says, are divestment campaigns targeting oil and gas. They’ve raised the profile of the issue, but…

TAYLOR: There’s a debate about divestment and how useful it is and whether it, quote-unquote, “works” anyway.

FLORIDO: Finance experts say divestment campaigns don’t really inflict financial pain on companies. Jonathan Berk teaches finance at Stanford. He says that’s because…

JONATHAN BERK: If I sell my stock, somebody else buys it.

FLORIDO: His research has found that…

BERK: In order to have an effect, you would need 85% of investors following the divestment strategy, which is a completely unrealistic number.

FLORIDO: For the university protesters demanding divestment, though, it’s about changing public perception. Raphael Eissa is a Columbia staffer who’s been involved in the pro-Palestinian protests and says the symbolism is crucial.

RAPHAEL EISSA: Part of it is to position Israel as a pariah state that is violating the sanctity of human life every single day.

FLORIDO: That is a view that Israel rejects. But if respected institutions take that stance, he says, it’s a big deal. But schools are also getting pressure from the other side. Alex Silvera graduated from Columbia in 2018 and last night brought an Israeli flag to campus.

ALEX SILVERA: I think that, like, the school should be able to support the country of Israel, to support democracy in the Middle East. The demands of these pro-Palestine rallies are kind of outlandish.

FLORIDO: Columbia didn’t respond to an NPR request for comment. But back in February, it formally rejected a student proposal that it divest from companies doing business in Israel. Many of the pro-Palestinian students on campus hope their current movement will force the school to reconsider. Adrian Florido, NPR News, New York.

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