The global movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel suffered a resounding setback this week in Seattle when the University of Washington's student senate rejected a resolution that would have pulled UW investments out of companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The defeat was particularly disappointing for Seattle-native and Evergreen State College senior Elizabeth Moore, one of many local activists involved in the global divestment campaign. (The UW vote affects Evergreen too. More on that soon.) As a young Jewish woman, Moore has always had a vexing relationship with Israel. Her criticisms of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians have led to accusations that she was a “turn coat” and “a self-hating Jew.”
When she started at The Evergreen State College in 2010, Moore’s desire to balance her Jewish identity with her ideals for social justice drove her to join the student group Mideast Solidarity Project, now called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). She arrived just as the organization was celebrating a pivotal victory.
In the second largest turnout (34%) for any ballot measure in the history of Evergreen, 79% of the participating students voted in favor of divesting from companies linked to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The election result was subsequently affirmed by a divestment resolution passed by Evergreen's student government. After months of educational events, meetings and impassioned speeches, the Palestinian solidarity activists had finally won.
But nothing happened.
Ironically, control over Evergreen's investment portfolio, and thus divestment, rests with the University of Washington. According to a 2012 financial report, $4.8 million of Evergreen’s $5.7 million endowment is held — along with 3,100 other individual portfolios — in the Consolidated Endowment Fund, which is managed by the UW. Pooling investments makes sense financially, but it leaves Evergreen with little say over where and how its money is invested.
Removing its investments from the pooled fund isn’t such a simple matter either. Although Evergreen wouldn’t incur any withdrawal fees, replicating the financial performance of the pooled fund would be “difficult if not impossible” with other investment options, says Todd Sprague, a spokesperson from Evergreen's treasury office.
Moore and other divestment activists have spent the last four years quietly maintaining awareness of the issue at Evergreen while working with UW students to slowly build support for divestment on that campus. Their efforts coalesced in Resolution 20-39, which the UW's student senate roundly rejected this week by a 59-8 vote (with 11 abstaining and 29 absent).
Had the student senate and its Board of Director passed the resolution, the senate would have sent a formal recommendation to the ultimate decision makers, the UW Board of Regents.
During discussions before the final vote, one senator warned that approving such a controversial measure could harm the credibility of the student senate. “This is one instance when UW’s cutting-edge innovation would be a bad thing,” he told his senate colleagues.
Despite the defeat, the divestment issue isn’t likely to disappear. Proponents point to what they say is growing campus support, saying that this week's failure has only strengthened their resolve.
Resolution 20-39 ignited a heated campus debate about the university’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; about whether maintaining financial ties to Israel makes schools complicit in what has been called an "apartheid state"; and about whether divestment unfairly singles out Israel.
“It’s a question of do you support human rights violations or not?” asked Caitlin Palo, a graduate student and a member of Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights, one of several campus organizations that cosponsored Resolution 20-39.
For opponents, at campuses in Washington and around the world, the resolution is an unjust attack on Israel. “Blaming and sanctioning only one side does nothing to promote an agreement that is just for both peoples,” argued David Weingarten, a student senator and member of the UW Hillel Board of Directors. On the contrary, it “polarizes the debate more, and decreases the chances for peace.” It could also depress enrollment, warned Rabbi Oren Hayon in The Jewish Sound, by making “UW a less attractive option for prospective Jewish students making decisions about where to go to college.”
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