Stanford Students for Palestinian Equal Rights (SPER) has continued its divestment campaign on and beyond campus in recent weeks, most notably sending delegates to a national conference on the issue in Philadelphia this past weekend.
The divestment campaign seeks to encourage Stanford to cease further — and prevent new — endowment investment in companies that are “profiting from the Israeli occupation [of Palestine],” according to SPER founder and co-president Omar Shakir ‘07, J.D. ’13.
“Divestment has been recognized as the most effective, moral, non-violent method of effectuating change, especially within the context of human rights abuses,” Shakir said. He added that divestment allows students to address the Middle Eastern conflict actively.
While acknowledging that Stanford, as a private university, is not obliged to — and does not — disclose its endowment investments, Shakir noted a Stanford policy of not investing in companies that cause “substantial social injury” as a basis for SPER’s appeals to the University.
Shakir cited student-prompted divestment from apartheid South Africa as a model that SPER is seeking to emulate. More recently, Stanford divested from Sinopec and PetroChina in 2005 after the companies’ association with the Darfur conflict, and in 2010, the University adopted an ethical investment policy in regards to conflict minerals as a response to the ongoing conflict in the Congo.
SPER’s campaign seeks divestment from eight companies that, SPER alleges, violate human rights by operating on Israeli-occupied settlements, enabling collective punishment, facilitating the construction of the barrier separating Israeli and Palestinian territories and supporting institutional discrimination. The eight companies listed are Ahava, Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin, Mekorot, Motorola, Riwal, Roadstone Holdings and Veolia Transportation.
While the extent to which the University’s endowment is currently invested in the eight companies — if at all — is unknown, Shakir said members of the University’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility have noted that at least some ongoing investment in the eight firms is likely, considering the endowment’s vast scale.
Shakir said he is largely optimistic about the degree of community support for the SPER campaign, noting that a petition first circulated in 2007 garnered more than 1,000 signatures from students, faculty, alumni and University affiliates. A revised petition that has been recently circulated currently has approximately 200 signatures, Shakir estimated.
SPER anticipates making its first formal presentation to the Board of Trustees later in the year. Shakir emphasized the group’s current focus on making the Stanford community more aware of an issue he considers “relatively misunderstood” among students.
The group is in the process of putting on a series of public events and student outreach initiatives in conjunction with other student groups focusing on human rights and social justice.
“We’re going dorm to dorm, holding student events,” Shakir said. “We see the campaign growing, and our goal is for students, faculty and staff to continue to raise their concerns about this issue.”
Two delegates from SPER attended a “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) event at the University of Pennsylvania this past weekend. The event incorporated both keynote speakers and panel discussions on how to force Israel to comply with the movement’s perception of international law.
Both delegates, speaking on condition of anonymity citing risk of academic conflicts, asserted that SPER is currently seeking to distance itself from the broader BDS movement in certain policy areas. One delegate emphasized that SPER supports selective rather than wholesale divestment and lacks a position on calls to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel entirely. The delegate said these stances distinguish the Stanford group from its counterparts at peer institutions.
The delegate, a Stanford sophomore, cited the diverse range of participating individuals and organizations as proof of the conference’s success, while Shakir praised the concept behind the weekend’s events.
“The campaign is increasingly gaining momentum across the country,” Shakir said. “We’re proud to be a part of this movement, and we want to strategize about how we can get more of the country involved in [our] activities.”
The BDS conference sparked controversy on the Penn campus, with students and faculty sharply and publicly divided. Comparisons of pro-Israel campaigners to apartheid South Africa and BDS supporters to Nazi Germany, respectively, persisted throughout the weeks leading up to the conference.
In an op-ed that ran in the Daily Pennsylvanian, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann declared that the University has, “repeatedly, consistently and forcefully expressed” its opposition to the BDS campaign’s goals. She added that, “just because we disagree — in this case strongly and deeply — with a group’s message does not mean that they lose their right to voice that message.”
Noah Feit, president of Penn Friends of Israel, said in an interview with The Daily that BDS speakers made some “legitimate” points and that free speech should prevail, but criticized the conference’s lack of policy prescriptions and his perception of a dependence on fringe support.
“Every political issue has to be debated,” said Ania Loomba, an English professor at Penn, to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “If you just out-of-hand dismiss it, that’s also shutting down the debate.”