Socialist Alternative

What Is Divestment, And What Would It Look Like To Win?

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In one of the boldest developments in the movement against Israel’s assault on Gaza, tens of thousands of university students, professors, and workers occupied college campuses across the country. United not only by their opposition to the violence, these encampments demanded that universities sever financial ties with Israel, and specifically that their endowments “divest” from companies doing business in Israel. This demand has been defined more or less broadly by different parts of the movement. Socialist Alternative has called for the end of all US military aid to Israel and to divest from state and private institutions linked to the brutal occupation of Palestinian land.

These demands were drawn in part from past struggles fighting for divestment from fossil fuels, the apartheid South African regime, and the military industrial complex during the Vietnam War. This spring, some university encampments won limited concessions from campus administration. But why would the movement focus on university divestment, and what does it actually look like for a university to “divest”?

University Endowments Are Unaccountable & Unequal

Behind the ivy-covered walls and ivory towers, universities are big businesses. Besides taking exorbitant sums from students in tuition, universities also sit on enormous treasure chests of money called endowments. The total value of all endowments in US universities is over $839 billion dollars, or about equal to the expected 2024 budget of the entire US military. These mountains of money are meant to supplement the school’s budget and insulate higher education against the demands of the market. But the reality is very different.

To start, many private university endowments originated from the fortunes of slave traders, plantation owners, robber barons, and war profiteers from early American history. Public universities are little better, with the two most wealthy land grant universities being located in Texas and drawing most of their wealth from oil and gas exploitation. Schools never have been, and never will be, free of the tortuous influence of capitalist greed. Furthermore, there’s an incredible disparity in wealth between the richest and poorest schools. The top ten wealthiest schools (of which eight are private) hold over 35% of all university endowments in the US. The schools with the biggest endowments are effectively stock portfolio management companies with classrooms attached.

And these wealthy universities manage their endowments by investing in the real estate and stock market, looking to win the greatest return on investment so that they can spend those returns on prestigious research centers, university capital improvements, and (way down the list) student scholarships. Plus many institutions do not list their investments, meaning that most endowments are total black boxes, leaving students and faculty with no way to know where their money is coming from or going to.

What Do We Need To Win Divestment?

One thing is extremely clear: University chancellors and boards will not disclose, divest, or even engage in dialogue without a forceful push. Occupations and encampments on campus are a good start, but on their own aren’t sufficient to actually win divestment. Most victories won using only this tactic so far have been for “Promises to discuss divestment” and other similarly squishy, soft concessions. To win real and concrete divestment, student movements must disrupt business as usual on campus. They will need to also work closely with university workers, especially unionized or organizing graduate students, to stop campus instruction across campus and give real weight to our threat to not let up until the movement’s demands are met. These efforts will need to be nationally coordinated, to make the movement more resilient in the face of police repression. Once again, campus workers, through their national union, can play a critical role in connecting different campus efforts together across the country.

Divestment also needs to be targeted to be maximally effective. A blanket divestment from “everything Israeli” can feed extremely false narratives of anti-semitism and push away working class Israeli people that are otherwise sympathetic to ending the war and occupation. Targeted divestment would also force universities out of American military companies like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, which are enabling and profiting from the war. Targeted divestment would be more effective and be clearer to Israeli workers that divestment is directed at the Israeli establishment rather than workers.

We Need to Go Farther Than Divestment

Divestment can play a huge role in rallying students and campus workers around a concrete demand that can be won. But the reality of divestment is that, in our capitalist system, for every university dollar taken out of Israeli war and occupation, another profit-seeking dollar from somewhere else replaces it. There are real limits on what divestment is able to achieve. 

To go further, campus movements will need to link up with broader struggles against oppression and war throughout society. Most importantly, students can play a tremendous role in working class movements fighting against the war and exploitation inherent under capitalism, whether in Israel or in the United States. Finally, any movement that seeks to actually end war and exploitation will need to be international. The central driving force of the struggle for liberation in Gaza, the West Bank, and in Israel will be mass action by working people in the region, both Israeli and Palestinian. A working class movement in the Middle East, crossing both religious and national divides as well as linking up with an international movement, will be much more effective in advancing their struggle than any divestment action from the outside can be.

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