Why the Fight for Divestment on U.S. Campuses is Transformative

Every day, we student organizers at UChicago, like millions of young people around the world, are confronted with the horrific genocide of Palestinians. This Zionist genocide is backed by “our” government and most of “our” prominent institutions, which makes us directly complicit.

I put the word “our” in quotations in recognition of the fact that I am part of the Iranian diaspora: someone who has dual citizenship and no particular national loyalties, similar to peers that I’ve met in leftist pro-Palestine spaces across the U.S whether they be Palestinian, Iraqi, Cameroonian, Cuban, Egyptian, or Lebanese. I also put it in quotations in recognition of the fact that the Biden administration, in its support for genocide, is not behaving “democratically” – with serious regard for the consent of the U.S. public, or even Congress in many cases. However, the fact that the “our” is in quotations, i.e. the fact that we live under a capitalist dictatorship, definitely doesn’t make us any less responsible for fighting to end the genocide of Palestinians and all other peoples living on the exceptionally violent frontiers and peripheries of “our” U.S. colonial empire.

As if the genocide in Gaza wasn’t enough, further catastrophes loom ahead as U.S. and Zionist military aggressions across the rest of Palestine (West Bank, Jerusalem, ’48), as well as in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and even Jordan, Egypt, and Iran continue. In sharp and traumatizing contrast to this daily horror, is the “business as usual” façade that all institutions, including “our” universities, strive to maintain. When we aren’t faced with outright repression, arrests, harassment, and doxing for our organizing, we are purposely gaslit by a horrifying “everyday American sense of normalcy” at our institutions.

In this context, it’s easy to sometimes feel discouraged about our organizing for divestment from weapons contractors and the Israeli occupation. Achieving divestment on our campuses can seem fundamentally blocked, or far too long term, as this current genocide unfolds with brutal rapidity. At the University of Chicago, the decision to divest is in the hands of the Board of Trustees, who are, in many cases, directly complicit billionaires. We should not realistically expect such directly complicit individuals to decide to divest from weapons contractors and the Israeli occupation, given that many are Zionists and/or personally profiting from the U.S.-backed wars. These wealthy trustees include Paula Crown, a shareholder in the bomb manufacturer General Dynamics, David Rubenstein, one of the founders of the Carlyle Group investment firm, and other individuals with investments and leadership positions spanning the Obama Foundation to Gilette. Both UChicago history (no divestment from South African apartheid, Darfur, etc.) and comparison with other universities across the U.S. make it a fair bet that the Board of Trustees won’t decide to divest in the short term.

Beyond the Trustees who administer them, the University endowment investments themselves, and sources of UChicago funding more broadly, are also deeply complicit. Simultaneously, they are integral funding streams for the institution in its current form. The depth of our institution’s financial complicity indicates that it isn’t possible to win a fight to make the financial practices of the university less imperialist, without fundamentally transforming the university’s functioning and structure.

These conditions should drive us to reflect on the purpose of the divestment movement. Is it worth continuing, considering that there has apparently been little concrete success after years of effort? I believe the answer is an emphatic yes, with the qualification that we need to frame this movement’s transformative potential in the right terms.

One important framing is that the campus divestment movement, part of the broader Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions strategy, is primarily about dealing a symbolic blow, and creating a cultural shift against Israeli apartheid and war profiteering more broadly, as opposed to materially deconstructing the military-industrial complex and Israeli apartheid. Financially divesting the UChicago endowment, if it is possible, may still have a less significant impact on imperial systems than the symbolic and cultural victory it would be. The strategic choice to pursue divestment on university campuses, despite its practical difficulties and limited direct material impact, is correct because elite U.S. institutions are mechanisms for the reproduction of ruling classes, and ideological legitimation of state and corporate practices. Even from a narrow perspective which looks at universities not through the lens of employment, investment, real estate development, and policing, but just “education,” these are institutions which reproduce violent state apparatuses like the CIA and army. At elite places like UChicago, they are career certificate providers that can place you in humanitarian NGOs, Bank of America executive boards, or engineering firms finding ways to innovate in the drone manufacturing sector. They are bastions of research for militarism – just look at UChicago physics’ role in building the nuclear bomb, or UChicago economics’ role in assisting the neoliberal market policies of the Pinochet dictatorship, or UChicago social sciences’ role hosting the first ever professor of “Police Administration,” a colonial U.S. officer named August Vollmer, who fought in the Philippines.

All this makes places like UChicago into key nodes in a larger cultural war. Right-wing forces in the U.S. understand this, as shown both by the McCarthyite attacks on the student movement by the U.S. Congress, and by the longstanding investment of Zionist organizations like the “Israel Institute” in building propagandistic presences at schools across the U.S. If we consider the main value of divestment movements as their potential to create a cultural and symbolic shift with regard to Zionism and Empire, elite campuses make a lot of sense as a terrain of struggle.

This reframing also implies that the divestment movement can be a success even before we achieve the financial and material goals. The movement produces symbolic and cultural shifts so long as we are broadening our base in terms of both membership and media attention, as our ideological and political analyses become more mature, and as we reshape conversations on and off campus towards solidarity with Palestine. The ideas that students are exposed to in their time at this institution have long lasting effects on their life and career trajectories. Therefore, we can also measure our success in terms of how hard we make it for U.S. military/Zionist entities to easily recruit uncritical students on our campus.

Another transformative aspect of the divestment movement is the radical community it rests on. This type of community, grounded in principles of mutual aid and abolition, is (ideally) opposed to the neoliberalism-induced trends of student careerism and narrow self-interest. Careerism and self-interest are intentionally bred by the competitive, “achievement focused” environment of elite universities, and push us to destroy our mental and physical health in search of marks on our resume and academic transcripts, then selling-out after graduation into NGO’s, corporations, and governmental bodies. By challenging the sociality that the genocide-complicit University pushes us into, we are getting ready to build new institutions that reshape our world, and NOT selling our lives to the hopeless project of “reforming” or collaborating with projects that have sanctioned the killing of thousands of Palestinian children.

This movement also challenges private property by implying that the financial decisions of a private institution should be subjected to democratic processes that are accountable to the community. But even more concretely, the UCUP divestment movement gave birth to a student/faculty sit-in, a contestation of private property (resulted in our arrest and trial for trespassing, by the administration’s private police force) and a call for student/community right to use to the university and its public spaces the way we collectively decide to. Same goes for other tactics we adopted: tabling on the quad without a “reservation,” taking up visual space by placing stickers, banners, flyers, chalk, and paint all over campus buildings, or taking space with our noise. These tactics, with their emphasis on laying claim to public space, put us in the tradition of other right to space/voice traditions like desegregation sit-ins and the actions of, for example South African tuition strikers/anti-racists in Cape Town.

The divestment movement conditions us to look at financial bases of institutional functioning, which moves the student struggle onto a material plane,encouraging it to interact with workers struggles, and workplace issues. This structure prepares us to deal with the bigger problems of the conditions of education under neoliberalism, and the basic contradiction between concentrated wealth, and democracy. Our materially grounded struggles and analyses reveal universities not to be unqualified “public goods” or bastions of the liberal-democratic dream, or “morally good” institutions (the ideological perspective of a billionaire philanthropist), but rather hedge funds, employers, real-estate developers, gentrifiers, and police forces.

The divestment movement has already begun setting new terms of engagement between the pro-Palestine community, Zionists, and the few UChicago administrators and trustees in control, forcing adaptations that include our radical demands. One good example of an ongoing set of adaptations our movement has incited is the formation of a UChicago Faculty for Justice in Palestine. They are engaged in ongoing efforts to critique and change the “political neutrality” policy of the University, and reshape how “student safety” is conceptualized in relation to activism, Concretely this includes reforming the disciplinary process that administrators have weaponized against us. It’s a sign of our power that we are setting new terms of engagement between radical student collectives, professors, and the school administration.

The “die-in” action we took at the Pret-A-Manger café on campus was strong as a way of continuing to dominate the media, visual space, and conversations on campus. Yet, it was only a first step. Working with the employees at Pret A Manger, as well as student workers/staff across the University is the next logical move, broadening our base and giving us the power to coordinate workplace strikes.

There is no doubt that it is our responsibility to “actually” win the divestment movement, including achieving the material goals of financial transparency and reallocating endowment funds. Yet, by training a generation of students against the neoliberal pro-Empire grain of a UChicago education, both through various communal forms of political education and through conducting direct actions that challenge existing regimes of private property and concentrated wealth, we are also transforming the world.


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