March 17, 2016

GUEST ROOM | On Divestment and Hypocrisy

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Recently, the Board of Trustees released a statement claiming that Cornell will only “divest from companies if their actions are ‘morally reprehensible,’” citing examples of apartheid, genocide and so on. We welcome this development. In its clear-cut identification of what constitutes an inappropriate financial investment, the University appears outwardly responsive to a longstanding concern in Cornell’s body politic — ethically responsible allocation of the University’s endowment funds.

In light of this newly calibrated position on divestment, however, we find it fitting to remind the Board that Cornell’s endowment remains invested in several corporations which directly and indirectly profit from Israel’s 48-year occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Consistently condemned by the international community as the single most enduring obstacle to the attainment of peace in the region, Israel’s illicit occupation of the Palestinian territories involves routine violations of the Palestinian people’s fundamental human rights. To cite three examples, Caterpillar Inc. sells bulldozers and industrial crawlers to the Israeli military deployed for the express purpose of demolishing existing Palestinian homes and villages in order to make way for Israeli settlements — which continue to openly contravene principles of international law enshrined in the Geneva conventions. Raytheon, a self-proclaimed global leader in “weapons research” and the manufacture of guided missiles, also plays an instrumental role in financing and maintaining the Israeli military’s subjugation of the Palestinian people. Hewlett-Packard provides the biometric I.D. system behind the nearly one hundred checkpoints which dot the occupied West Bank, an area roughly equal to the size of the state of Delaware. These checkpoints allow the Israeli military to indiscriminately control all forms of civilian movement in occupied Palestine.

And yet, when student activists sent a resolution calling for Cornell to divest from such “morally reprehensible” corporations to the Student Assembly in the spring of 2014, the Assembly immediately tabled the resolution without holding a vote. In addition, the Assembly declined to even present the resolution on the floor for discussion. While the Assembly’s actions constitute but one example of a well-established praxis of silencing open debate regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campuses across the U.S., the sheer speed with which Cornell quashed our dissent sets it apart.

Sadly, however, the administration’s transparent hypocrisy in its blithe reference to “moral reprehensibility” falls within a long tradition of refusal to divest from ethically deficient institutions. Despite decades of protest (beginning with the iconic student takeover of Willard Straight Hall during the zenith of the white backlash to the American civil rights movement in 1969), the University consistently rejected student and faculty resolutions calling for total divestment from apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s — a government with the unique distinction of receiving universal condemnation as one of the most grotesquely racist, “morally reprehensible” régimes to ever exist. In fact, the University retained $42.1 million of stock in South African corporations in 1989, the year which saw Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the commencement of apartheid’s demise.

This damning context renders the Board’s citation of “apartheid” as something worthy of divestment either historically ignorant or deliberately dishonest. Cornell boasts the unenviable distinction of remaining one of the valiant few collegiate institutions in the U.S. never to have divested from apartheid-era South Africa. Given this track record, which seems blatantly inexcusable by the administration’s own standards, we fail to see how the Board expects its issuance of last week’s statement to appear sincere. Indeed, the heavy weight of these historical transgressions — in tandem with that of our own experiences on this campus — leaves us convinced that the Board’s declaration amounts to nothing more than a feeble sham, concocted in a desperate attempt to assuage the increasingly vociferous calls for conscientious stewardship of Cornell’s finances.

In closing, what constitutes an apartheid state? The African National Congress, the torchbearer of the South African anti-apartheid struggle, has consistently expressed its solidarity with the Palestinian people. South African trade unions, activists and political leaders have repeatedly pointed out that the Palestinians’ quotidian reality remains strongly reminiscent of that of blacks in apartheid-era South Africa. Apartheid means an Israeli prime minister willing to make flagrantly racist remarks about Palestinian Arab minorities and duplicitously repudiate any prospect of Palestinian statehood. Apartheid means explicitly segregated roads and transportation routes in the occupied Palestinian territories. Apartheid means over half of the land in the occupied West Bank entirely cut off to Palestinians, at an estimated cost to the Palestinian economy of $3.4 billion per annum. Apartheid means Palestinian workers and farmers subjected to inhumane conditions — often earning less than the Israeli minimum wage — silenced by the fear of losing their work permits. And most importantly, apartheid means thousands of Palestinian men, women and children killed without cause in periodic outbreaks of staggering violence such as the world witnessed in 2008, 2012 and 2014 in Gaza.

We harbor no doubt that these actions — and, by extension, the efforts of corporations which contribute to and profit from sustaining such actions — qualify as “morally reprehensible.” Yet the last time students attempted to raise the issue of divestment from these corporations, the administration tacitly backed a complete shutdown of the debate. If the Board wishes to retain any iota of credibility in its casual invocation of “apartheid” and “moral reprehensibility,” we can only hope that it adheres to its stated position — and publicly divests from corporations which profit from Israel’s unrelenting occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Ambarneil Saha, Emad Masroor and Hadiyah Chowdhury are students at Cornell. Responses may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.