Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Pre-Occupied: Hampshire Anti-Israel BDS Activists Continue to Distort the Past, Look to the Future

It was bound to happen. I had been wondering how long it would be before the anti-Israel divestment (BDS) movement would attempt to claim its role in the Occupy Hampshire movement.

Although the issue appeared in the fliers and literature of the College’s Occupy activists, it had not been prominent in the larger scheme of things. When it came up at the rally here last month, it was almost as an afterthought: one individual brought it up during the open microphone time.

"Occupy Wall Street—Not Palestine!"


In this version of what has become the standard "heroic" narrative, valiant activists, carrying forward the noble tradition of divestment from South Africa that their forebears had initiated, took on the College's equally sordid ties to Israel and won. The College, however, due to either lack of principle or lack of nerve, never acknowledged this, and rather, denied that the whole incident had taken place. Here, these actions are said to be in keeping with a general opposition to socially responsible investing.


• introducing the notion of socially responsible investing, and Hampshire's tradition of activism. The term, he says, needs to be "unpacked": (0:35) "thinking about, like, where are we putting our money, and why are we putting our money there?"

• (c. 0:45) "um, it's something that, apparently, as, like, the administrations and the board have said, just, like, fundamentally disrupts the whole idea of a board, because our job is to make money . . . so why would I be thinking of socially responsible things?"

• (c. 0:57) regarding the socially responsible investment committee (CHOIR): "the administration never wanted it to be there in the first place"

• (c. 1:25) "in 2007 or so, students on campus brought it [=CHOIR: the socially responsible investment committee] back, specifically around S... [revealingly, starts to say: SJP, i.e. Students for Justice in Palestine] Palestine, because, a lot of you know, there is [?] Israeli occupation, a bunch of companies are making weapons for the Israeli Army and communications [scattered boos]."

• (c. 1:45) "eventually in 2009, this school was the first school in the US to divest from the Israeli occupation. [loud cheers and whistles] The school, immediately after that decided to deny that, the school denied that it was a political, it was not a political thing, it had nothing to do with Israel. They hired a socially responsible investment company just in order to depoliticize it. The school that doesn't believe in socially responsible investing, it hired a company to do screening, they didn't trust the students to do it. They used that screening to depoliticize it and say it had nothing to do with Israel."

The speaker goes on to claim that Islamophobia prevails on campus. [A glance at our courses and events suggests otherwise. In fact, Ralph Hexter, the President at the time of the divestment controversy, employed a personal research assistant whose field was Islamic history and culture, and who therefore taught those subjects at Hampshire: 1, 2.] The speaker goes on to characterize the policy review process as dishonest, disguised, and deliberately dragged out.

• (03:25) “I noticed, very subtly, on the Intranet [ . . . ] before the Snowpocalypse, that there was going to be a meeting about this new, supposedly we now have a new socially responsible investing, uh, comm…—not committee—but, like, written, written-out plan. The Snowpocalypse came, so it didn’t happen. I sent an email to Beth Ward, who is, um, the secretary of . . . I'm not sure [laughter; . . . ] she's, like, the spokesperson for the Board of Trustees."

[Ironically, Beth Ward, who has a long record of activism on behalf of peace and progressive causes, was in the audience, having joined the "Occupy" gathering a short time earlier. She can be seen in the green coat almost directly in front of the concrete pilaster bordering the windows of the building in the background.] Speaker continues:

(03:57): "Anyways, I just want you all to be aware that there is a new socially responsible investing, um, piece out there. We don't know what it is, it's been completely untransparent." Speaker again questions the character of the process.

(04:14) "So it's all just, like, a real mix. I've asked for when they're going to have a meeting about what this is. Hopefully, we'll be finding out soon, but you should, it's something, like, that's our ability to pressure the school to divest from things. We can also do it in popular campaigns, we need to be doing popular campaigns like this. But be aware that the school, again, is consistently trying to not let us know what it's invested in because it is invested in, not just in Palestine, it is invested in prisons, it is invested in, um, like, other wars all around us. So it's not just about Palestine, but that was one location again, when students get activated, they, that's what they start. So, um, I don't want to keep talking, but I think it's worth it still [?]."

(04:56) Chant: "Occupy Wall Street—Not Palestine!"


The talk of course presents a highly tendentious narrative of what was by all accounts a rather tortuous process—complicated by the inveterate tendency of the institution to speak in bureaucratese and circumlocutions, and to respond with soft tones and blandishments rather than a loud voice and a fist on the table.

This is arguably the most famous academic “divestment” case in the United States, a situation remarkable mainly because this loud and persistent claim is based on a willful misreading of the facts. We live in a postmodern age of "truthiness," after all.

As should by now be well known: In February of 2009, after a long campaign, anti-Israel activists on campus formally asked the College to divest from a handful of companies that, they claimed, supported “the Israeli occupation of Palestine” and violated the College’s socially responsible investment policy.

The College, acting in accordance with its procedures, duly looked into the matter not on these political grounds, but in order to determine whether the firms violated that existing policy. The upshot: some of the holdings in question were found to be in violation of the policy, others were not. The College further discovered that several large funds contained numerous problematic items and agreed to relinquish such holdings accordingly. Finally, the College also found its existing socially responsible investment policy to be problematic and unclear and ordered a review that would lead to the drafting of a better policy. This is well documented. (further: 1, 2, 3, 4)

That was all. The College acted on the basis of its own regulations, targeted no country or particular type of investment, and made no political statement.

Unfortunately, the well-organized activists immediately announced to the world that Hampshire College, which had been the first to divest from holdings in South Africa, had now divested from "the Israeli occupation of Palestine." What better way to propagate the view that Israel practiced “apartheid”? It was that historical record that made the College such a prize and gave activists the hope that they might be able to punch above their weight. After all, the amount of money in our endowment—barely $ 31 million—is trivial in comparison with those of even our neighbors, such as Amherst and Smith, whose portfolios top a billion dollars.

The incident is not intrinsically remarkable: because nothing happened. Indeed, if it set a precedent at all, it was for the subsequent pattern of false claims of other divestment incidents, from banks to businesses. (Jon Haber has been documenting this meticulously for several years.)

* * *
To say that the College is not committed to ethical investing is as insulting as it is untruthful. It is true that there was initial resistance to the idea when it began, but that was in the 1970s (well before most of us were here, of course). Things have changed. I was the faculty member of the Board of Trustees a decade ago, so I can attest that we took the concept very seriously. The College was and has been committed to the principle that it is possible to satisfy the demands of both fiscal sustainability and social responsibility.

As for that review of the investment policy, there is nothing conspiratorial about it. Regarding the argument that the College didn't allow the students to "do" the screening. If the word "do" implies giving sole or ultimate authority to students: correct, that's not how things work. (I've just finished co-chairing the Governance Task Force, which undertook a comprehensive review of College policies and procedures.) But that is also a vastly oversimplified notion of the process. To be clear: the College would not leave that task entirely to staff or faculty, either. All three constituencies are represented on CHOIR (as on most Hampshire governance bodies), but professional expertise is sometimes required. When the initial review—prompted by the students—turned up numerous possible problems with the massive fund as a whole, the College, quite logically, brought in experts. And KLD, the firm that the College turned to, (a) is the leading firm in socially responsible investing practices and (b) found over 200 violations in the fund in question. Any member of the community—including a student or student group—is always free to bring forward a request for action or information regarding specific investments. This is exactly what happened in this case.

One reason that the subsequent review of investment policies and procedures took so long was that the campus was embroiled in various unrelated internal controversies involving everything from construction projects to admission policy, and, in the past year, was focused on the search for a new president. Even under the best of circumstances, the nitty-gritty work of internal research and policy development is carried out in committee and not in the public square. In any case, there has been public input on our overall values and policies, and the people leading the process are trusted members of the community. The meeting about to take place is in fact a public forum: It presents the new policy to the community so that anyone can offer comment in the course of the coming week. If it was announced only via the Intranet, that is simply because the daily email bulletins and corresponding web posts are always the place where official announcements are first disseminated.

No one who has not been involved in the review process or related administrative decisions can say what is in the document. According to my sources, at any rate, it will most likely present a very robust and rigorous policy, but not one that explicitly targets any particular country or political cause. This is of course as it should be: one does not design the overarching investment policy of an institution around a single case.

Anyway, we will soon find out: the results will be announced this afternoon at 3:30.

Almost as interesting as learning about the policy itself will be watching the spin that people try to put on it. Assuming that things unfold as described above, the BDS advocates will have two choices: express outrage, or claim victory and go home. That is, they will be disappointed if there is no explicit political statement or if certain holdings are retained. On the other hand, they may attempt to claim credit for having at least indirectly triggered the whole process. Hell, they may try to do both: take credit and yet demand more.

For nearly three years, the BDS activists have boasted relentlessly of their success. Their standard line has been that they succeeded, but that the administration—as as result of a mixture of its own cowardice and sinister pressure from outside pro-Israel groups—has refused to acknowledge defeat. This is the basis for the divestment myth that BDS faithful cling to and repeat like a Gospel narrative. More recently, though, they have given signs of perhaps trying to walk that story back a bit. At the 2010 graduation ceremony, an SJP activist (so oppressed by the system that he was chosen to be student commencement speaker) expressed frustration that the effort had not really succeeded. The above video simultaneously claims that "this school was the first school in the US to divest from the Israeli occupation" and that, still, "it is invested . . in Palestine."  Merely a slip of the tongue arising from extemporaneous speaking? Perhaps. But then why, if we already divested, does the flier—presumably prepared with ample care—challenge readers to "launch new divestment campaigns against Hampshire's ties to the Israeli occupation"?

So, which is it? Are we celebrating victory or still seeking it?

The BDS activists don’t know what they are talking about. Literally.

That should tell you something.

As for the results of that meeting on socially responsible investment policy? Stay tuned.

* * *


Additional updates since original posting:  video transcription, flier image; minor edits.

Preliminary coverage of the investment committee report  here. Detailed report to follow. (now posted: here)

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