Students presented an argument against University divestment from companies allegedly contributing to human rights abuses in Palestine during an Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility and Investment Policies meeting Tuesday evening.
The meeting — which included presentations from members of Brown Students for Israel in addition to other students opposed to divest — marked the first time ACCRIP has heard an organized case against divestment in the past year, according to Annie Phan ’20, a student representative of ACCRIP. ACCRIP Chairman Chi-Ming Hai invited BSI to present after one of its members voiced concerns during the committee’s last meeting, The Herald previously reported.
The student group Brown Divest, which has led a campus-wide movement for divestment, has presented to the committee at least twice in the last year. Members of Brown Divest were present at yesterday’s meeting. Ben Bienstock ’20, a Brown Divest member, said that parts of BSI’s presentation were misleading as well as “deeply upsetting and personally offensive.”
During the meeting, BSI members made the case that University divestment would fail to alleviate the social harm caused by the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Social harm cannot be mitigated through mere financial divestment directed against Israel,” said Zach Harris ’22, president of the University's J Street U chapter, during the presentation. “Rather, comprehensive bilateral negotiations are needed to ensure a solution that grants peace and security to all parties.”
BSI members further stressed that the results of an undergraduate referendum on divestment, which passed with 69 percent of the vote last March, were not representative of the viewpoints of the entire University community because only 27.5 percent of total undergraduates voted in support.
BSI members also expressed concern that divestment would send a message to the campus and beyond that the University supports the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement, which the group has deemed anti-semitic.
“The ultimate goal of BDS is not to change policies, it’s not to make lives better for Palestinians — although they definitely purport to do that — it’s to eliminate Israel,” said Ethan Swagel ’23, a member of BSI.
Andrew Steinberg ’22, another member of BSI, said that Brown Divest is “very much ingrained and intertwined” with BDS. He discussed a tweet BDS sent out in support of Brown Divest, as well as a Brown Divest demonstration that included a wall painted with the words “boycott,” “divest” and “sanction.”
When President Christina Paxson P’19 announced her opposition to Brown Divest last March, she emphasized that she would not support a movement that embraced “any of the planks of the BDS movement.”
The BDS movement demands that countries, businesses and universities cut economic ties with Israel, unless the country grants “full equality” to Palestinian citizens of Israel and ends its occupation of all land captured since 1967, among other demands. Brown Divest calls for the University to divest from specific companies that the group deems as “complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine.”
Bienstock told The Herald that BSI’s presentation misrepresented what Brown Divest is about by “equating it with a campaign that is focused on the Israeli economy.”
“What happened today was basically an attempt to divert attention away from what Brown Divest is asking for from ACCRIP and from Brown, which is not at all anti-semitic, and which is not even particularly targeting the Israeli government,” Bienstock added.
Phan told The Herald that she was not convinced by BSI’s position and will likely vote in favor of divestment if ACCRIP votes on the issue during her tenure. Phan added she was particularly unconvinced by BSI’s point that divestment is insufficient because it might not lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
“Every little action results in some sort of impact, and just because there’s no impact today doesn’t mean there’s going to be no impact in the future,” she said. “Even if it’s not possible for Brown to divest, I think the decent thing to do is to acknowledge that there is significant social harm created by the Israeli government to the Palestinians.”
Beyond BSI, the Brown chapter of a group known as Alums for Campus Fairness has become increasingly active in advocating against divestment. As a member of ACCRIP, Phan has received nearly 20 identical emails from the group since last Wednesday. The emails called on ACCRIP to “support the Jewish community at Brown and vote against the action to divest from companies allegedly contributing to human rights abuses in Palestine,” according to the email.
ACF is a national organization with 5,400 alumni from 38 American universities, wrote Naomi Reinharz, the president of the ACF-Brown chapter, in an email to The Herald. The Brown chapter is made up of alumni, parents, and community members of the University, according to the chapter’s email to ACCRIP members. The group has been involved in organizing against Brown Divest since spring 2019, but these emails were their first formal communication to ACCRIP.
A previous version of this article mistakenly identified Zach Harris '22 as a member of BSI. In fact, he is president of the University's chapter of J Street U. It also misattributed information about Alums for Campus Fairness to one of its spokespeople, when it should have attributed it to Naomi Reinharz, the president of the ACF-Brown chapter. The article has been updated to reflect those changes. The Herald regrets the errors.