The Board Is Not Our Friend

In the spring of my freshman year, I met with two Board members and a variety of administrators about a resolution that garnered over one thousand signatures and ultimately passed our Student Government Organization. The resolution called upon Swarthmore to divest from seven companies that have documented links to Israeli apartheid and war crimes targeting Palestinians. This demand sounds pretty straightforward and to be expected from a supposed “Quaker” institution, right? After all, “bringing about the world that ought to be” should first and foremost consist of assuring that our institution’s financial investments — on behalf of one of the highest endowments per student ratios in the country — is not funding violent injustices around the world. As long as we remain invested in longstanding state violence against Palestinians, our college is in direct contradiction to its professed values. Unfortunately, however, divesting from apartheid and war crimes is not so simple for Swarthmore.

Upon meeting with these Board Members to advocate for our popular Boycott Divestment and Sanctions resolution, we were met with swift rejection. This is perhaps unsurprising given the practically identical responses from administrators at other institutions that have passed BDS resolutions in their own student governments. But Swarthmore goes a step further. After hearing our simple and just case to divest from seven specific companies culpable in continued Israeli aggression toward Palestinians, the Board members directed us to “the Ban.”

As Daniel Fernandez details further in a multi-part series titled “Know the Ban, Ban the Ban,” Swarthmore has instituted a ban on any and all ethical divestment. When met with calls to boycott another apartheid system in South Africa in 1991, most of Swarthmore’s Board members were bafflingly hesitant. (Are you noticing a pattern?) It wasn’t until the only two Black Board members at the time threatened to step down from their positions that the Board agreed to fully divest from apartheid South Africa. In fact, Samuel L. Hayes III ’57, one of the members who voted against divesting from South African apartheid and continues to oppose the move to this day, remains an emirata member of the Board. After the supposed horror of that experience for the white Board members, the body declared that “As a matter of policy, the Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” In summary, they decided to prioritize the economic future of the school regardless of what inhumane acts might fund that goal. As you can guess, this policy is not all too popular among Swarthmore students, many of whom were drawn to the school precisely because of its student body’s engagement with social justice issues. A 2018 referendum calling for the end of the Ban received approval among 87% of students who voted. Any way you slice it, the Ban pedals a clearly unpopular, immoral, and un-Quakerly agenda.

Apartheid is not complicated. It is a violent and racist system that is antithetical to our community’s shared values. Apartheid was not complicated in South Africa and it is not complicated in Palestine. Human rights groups like B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch have recently stated what Palestinians have long known: Israel is committing crimes of apartheid. So why do our Board members seem to think funding apartheid is so complicated? Well, simply put, it is because the Board is not our friend.

Upon the meeting’s (relatively speedy) conclusion, one of the Board members called our attention to the Sunrise Movement which in fact originated at Swarthmore under the name Mountain Justice. He claimed that the Board’s resistance to their divestment efforts is what prepared members of the Sunrise Movement to advocate for climate justice in Congress today. In other words, this Board member claimed that Swarthmore’s unpopular and harmful decision to remain invested in the fossil fuel industry helped develop and toughen up members of the Sunrise Movement. That is bullshit.

Being as ineffective at combating climate change as the U.S. government is nothing to be proud of. I am, however, proud to know that the first fossil fuel divestment campaign started on our campus and that since then, over $14 trillion has been divested from fossil fuels. But I’m nevertheless horrified by the fact that not a penny of that divestment effort has come from Swarthmore itself, the very institution at which the movement originated. This too is a result of the Ban.

In fact, I wonder how many bright and revolutionary individuals that Swarthmore has institutionally harmed and turned away from activism altogether. After all, we have witnessed time and time again — most recently in the institutional response to the Black Affinity Coalition led Strike — that Swarthmore heavily cracks down on student activism. There is a long history of political suppression at Swarthmore, including the surveillance of ALL Black students in collaboration with the FBI starting in 1956 as well as heavy intimidation efforts on behalf of white students and administration that physically drove out Black student activists from campus. One of these students was esteemed abolitionist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, but I suppose that the Board member’s logic would imply that Gilmore had to experience this horrendous institutional mistreatment on behalf of Swarthmore in order to be as influential as she is today. I happen to believe that no injustice is “necessary,” especially among a tight knit community like Swarthmore’s which is so experienced in performatively declaring progressive values and a supposed openness to all backgrounds. Well, I for one can never feel fully comfortable in a place that is currently funding the massacre and continued mass expulsion of my people.

When I shared my frustration with the Board member’s demeaning and tone-deaf statement, he claimed that “the goal for our next meeting will be not to condescend.” Frankly, we don’t have time for such a basic expectation to be “the goal for the next meeting.” This only further evidenced that meetings such as these are nothing more than performative gestures because the Board is not our friend.  I believe that the goal for that first meeting and any proceeding meetings should be to implement just and popular policies that are in line with Swarthmore’s mission statement. The Ban is undoubtedly neither. 

So I ask the Board members: at what point do you draw the line? If we continue to be invested even in the destruction of the planet we inhabit for the sake of the institution’s “economic stability,” is there anything we won’t fund? When this planet becomes uninhabitable, will Swarthmore use its bloated endowment to fund a campus on Mars? Perhaps Elon Musk will donate a space library in return for X Æ A-12’s enrollment.

On a more serious note, I ask the Board members why it is that my education must supposedly come at the expense of Gazans’ lives, East Jerusalem inhabitants’ homes, and Palestinian citizens of Israel’s continued second class citizenship. After all, both our tax and tuition dollars fund Israel’s continued sieges on Gaza, the leveling of Palestinian villages to accommodate illegal Israeli settlers, and the current unaccountable lynchings of Palestinian citizens of Israel. How can we claim to be an inclusive and politically engaged community when our own institution is actively complicit in mass expulsion, apartheid, illegal occupation, blockade, and brutal siege?

The truth is that the Board knows the right answers to these questions, and have decided to throw them aside anyway. The Board is not our friend and we must stop treating them as such. We tried working through their systems and we were set up to fail from the start. We demonstrated the popularity of divestment and the unpopularity of the Ban, we fought to pass a student government resolution in the face of conservative intimidation tactics, and we met with Board members “civilly” to state our case. As a result, we were demeaned and delivered a predetermined decision as a result of this primitive and immoral Ban. In order to attain any semblance of justice, we cannot keep playing by the rules of an unjust body.

Don’t get me wrong, Swarthmore’s adoption of our just and fairly moderate divestment policy targeting seven companies explicitly involved in war crimes will not end Palestinian suffering by any means. But it could very well start a chain reaction, much like the cultural and economic boycott of South Africa did and like the fossil fuel divestment campaign originating at Swarthmore continues to.

I, and the vast majority of my peers, do not want the institution of which we are a part funding apartheid crimes, forced expulsions, enviornmental terrorism, or military bombardment of any people and that cannot happen until we “Ban the Ban.”

So what do we do? We can start by individually adopting Palestinian civil society’s call to boycott Israeli products until its government complies with International Law. Furthermore, alumni and graduating seniors of conscience can redirect intended donations to Swarthmore toward Palestinians resisting apartheid as encouraged by Swarthmore Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Current students should also get involved with the Ban the Ban coalition to start changing the course of our horrendous institutional legacy. Now is the time.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of The Phoenix Editorial Board. 

Photo courtesy of RNW Media on Flickr.

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