Thursday, January 22, 2009

Swarthmore College:

"Divest fully from any entity that contributes to or supports the apartheid in Israel/Palestine..."

The Daily Gazette

"Swat Alums Start Israel Divestment Campaign"

Last Friday, went live with an open petition urging Swarthmore to “divest fully from any entity that contributes to or supports the apartheid in Israel/Palestine,” including U.S. companies that do business in Israel, companies that manufacture military equipment used by Israel, and Israeli companies themselves.

The campaign is the brainchild of Chiara Ricciardone ‘05 and husband Micah White ‘04. The Gazette spoke to Ricciardone, who studied history and interpretation theory at Swarthmore and is currently a PhD student in Philosophy, Interpretation, and Culture at SUNY Binghamton. Ricciardone said that she was “feeling angry over the deaths in Gaza” when she read an article by Naomi Klein, which sparked the idea for the campaign.

With over 110 signatures from young alumni and current students, Ricciardone said she has been “overwhelmed with the positive response so far” but is hoping to be able to reach older alumni as well. Ricciardone continued, “an alumni structure has more durability… We won’t graduate and forget about it because to us this is a struggle for the meaning and reputation of our school.”

The alumni base is also important because the petition pledges “to withhold all future donations to Swarthmore until full and complete divestment is enacted and made public.”

“My feeling is that they want to do the right thing, but also have a responsibility to protect the school’s finances,” said Ricciardone of the Board of Managers. “The idea of the donation strike… [is that] we’re trying to convince them that Israeli divestment is not only ethically right but also financially right, that in this case they are one and the same thing.”

Asked about the wide-ranging call for divestment targets, Riccardone said, “while of course we are pushing for the fullest divestment possible, we are happy to work with the administration to arrive at a feasible divestment plan.”

The campaign is new enough that the organizers have not yet spoken with anyone in the college administration, but the Gazette spoke to College Treasurer Suzanne Welsh about the college’s general policy on ethically-motivated divestment.

Welsh explained that the Board of Managers would have to vote on any divestment plan, and that “as a matter of policy, the Investment Committee manages the endowment in order to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue social objectives.” She continued, “the college’s primary mission is to educate the students and that’s what our endowment should be used for primarily… Adopting a policy that would restrict investments for a different social purpose might detract from our primary mission.”

That said, “from time to time issues come along that are so compelling that exceptions have been made.”

The best example here is Swarthmore’s 1986 decision to divest from South Africa in order to oppose apartheid, and Ricciardone acknowledged that the South African divestment was an inspiration for her campaign.

Welsh explained that during apartheid, the college tried only to invest in U.S. companies that adopted the Sullivan Principles of not supporting apartheid, but “as time went on that did not get resolved… [and] a full-scale divestment campaign was launched internationally to help to put pressure on the government.”

Multiple Swarthmore constituencies latched onto the campaign, which Welsh described as a “very divisive issue for the Board of Managers… Ultimately, a compromise was reached where the board agreed to divest from U.S. companies doing business in South Africa, but only if the cost of that decision could be quantified and charged to the annual budget each year.”

The Board felt that the extra cost should not be absorbed by the endowment, since “if it’s the current generation who want to make that decision, they should be willing to pay the cost… The people who were opposed would stand aside as long as that was the case.”

This meant that the rough cost of not investing in these companies was quantified—between one million and two million dollars in each year of the policy, according to Welsh—and was treated as a line item on the budget that had to be accounted for, making those funds unavailable for other needs.

More recently, students ran a campaign for the college to divest from the Sudan in 2005, but Welsh explained that this was a different case because it only involved foreign companies, which “we don’t invest in directly.”

“They’re part of a fund that we buy… [and] we don’t have any control over these funds… so it was sort of a moot point in that sense,” Welsh said.

Nevertheless, “we had discussions with several of the fund managers,” and also wrote a letter to the managers of the funds asking them to take Sudanese policies into account. Overall, “the holdings of companies were really minimal… We didn’t feel there was any significant exposure.”

Riccardone feels that “Israeli apartheid” is a compelling enough issue to be a good divestment choice for Swarthmore. “Swarthmore has a historic opportunity to make a name for themselves as the first institution to stand against apartheid in Israel. That will continue to attract the passionate and political students we want… [and] give us a reputation as a Quaker institution that doesn’t just talk, but actually invests in peace,” she said.

Furthermore, Riccardone feels that “American institutions especially should divest. For Muslims to see US citizens taking a stance against apartheid, that will do more to undermine support for terrorism than a war ever could… If we divest from the bulldozer companies, from the apartheid wall, those will be material and physical ways to help.”