The University of Michigan Central Student Government (CSG) is asking the school’s Board of Regents to review the university’s investments with companies that do business with the Israeli government, and to potentially divest from those companies. The Central Student Government has failed to pass similar proposals at least 10 times since 2002.
Palestinian students and their allies screamed with joy and wept when it was announced the resolution passed by a 23-17-5 vote. Supporters of the measure say Israel’s government violates the human rights of Palestinians – and that some companies financially supported by the University’s endowment are complicit in those violations because they provide military technologies to Israel.
Tala Al-Saaghir says she is a Michigan student. She supported the controversial resolution – which CSG representatives passionately debated for more than seven hours in a crowded lecture hall.
“Everyone deserves the right to land, to freedom, to justice,” Saaghir said. “Just like, you know, America upholds.”
Saaghir said it is a moral imperative for the University to divest from certain companies if they are found to contribute to human rights violations. However, the passage of the resolution was a long-sought and important emotional victory for Palestinian students and supporters who feel marginalized on campus and victimized by Israel.
The resolution asks the University of Michigan Board of Regents to create a committee for the purposes of reviewing its investments with Boeing, Hewlett-Packard and United Technologies. The resolution presented to CSG claims the University has $14.8 million collectively invested in the companies.
“The committee honestly might look into the university’s investments and decide not to divest, and that’s fine,” Saaghir said. “We still passed the resolution, and it’s the symbolism that matters, and the idea that our voices were heard today.”
Some Jewish students who stated concerns that the resolution unfairly singled-out Israel also wept, but in grief, when the resolution passed. Tilly Shames, director of the Jewish Student group University of Michigan Hillel, was comforting students in the wings of the lecture hall when the meeting finally adjourned after three in the morning Wednesday.
“This resolution was not simply about Palestinian human rights,” Shames said. “It was about singling out Israel as the sole entity responsible for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. And that’s an oversimplification, overgeneralization of an historically complex conflict that really can’t be attributed to one side or the other.”
The University of Michigan Dearborn student government passed a similar resolution in March. According to the Michigan Daily student newspaper, University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein defended Israel in March when he addressed the U of M Dearborn Student Government President Fiana Arbab about her student government’s calls to divest from companies with ties to Israel.
Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a broader, Palestinian led movement that also calls for divestment from companies in Israel. Critics, including Bernstein according the Michigan Daily, say BDS’ overall goal is to delegitimize Israel as a country, not just stick up for human rights.
“I want to be crystal clear – very clear – about my own unwavering deeply held position on anything related to BDS,” The Michigan Daily quotes Bernstein as saying in March. “I believe it is an intellectually bankrupt, morally repugnant expression of anti-Semitism.”
At the U of M Central Student Government meeting that began Tuesday night and ended with the passage of the resolution Wednesday, CSG representatives who co-authored the proposal were repeatedly asked if CSG would be aligning itself with BDS. Several times CSG representatives supporting the measure stated they do not align themselves with the overall BDS movement, but still believe the University should consider divestment.
In an emailed statement this morning, University of Michigan spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald indicated it is unlikely the Regents will create a committee to consider and divestment.
"The primary purpose of investments (through our endowment) is to generate the greatest possible income," said Fitzgerald. "It is important that the university maintain an investment portfolio diversified across a full range of legally recognized entities. To do otherwise would be to increase our investment risk and decrease our investment returns.
"For this reason, the university’s longstanding policy is to shield the endowment from political pressures and to base our investment decisions solely on financial factors such as risk and return. This approach has been underscored consistently by university leaders, including the Board of Regents, most recently in December 2015. We do not anticipate a change in this approach or the creation of a committee," Fitzgerald said.
According to the language of the resolution, the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents has divested just twice before, once related to South African Apartheid in 1978, and from tobacco-related companies in 2000.
NOTE: This story was updated at 8:12 am to include portions of a written statement submitted by University of Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.