At 1 p.m. on the 9th of May, 1977, 294 members of Stanford’s community occupied Old Union to protest our university’s decision to maintain its investments in apartheid South Africa. Five hours later, police stormed the building with bullhorns, arresting every last demonstrator.
This historic stand-off between Stanford activists and law enforcement reflects how polarizing divestment from South African apartheid was at that time. Commentators across the board slammed divestment as “a fad, a moral hula hoop, fun for a while.” Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush argued that divestment from apartheid South Africa would be “morally wrong and unacceptable” and “counter-productive.” Many opposed divestment on the grounds that it would deepen racial divides, decrease the international community’s political and economic leverage in South Africa and perpetuate apartheid by leading to South African self-sufficiency. Some argued that divestment would “only lead to more hardship, particularly for the blacks,” by increasing their rates of unemployment and poverty without ending legalized apartheid.
History has shown those claims to be false. The damage that divestment caused to South Africa’s economy was limited, but the impact of those sanctions on white South African perceptions of the apartheid state was tremendous. South Africans were made to understand that the system of apartheid — an inherently racist series of policies designed to maintain the state’s exploitative and colonial relationship with its black population — had no place in the modern world. Far from creating internal strife, divestment created the conditions necessary for South Africans themselves to dismantle legalized apartheid. Divestment brought a state which considered itself free and democratic to question its narrow definitions of those terms.
The language of opponents of South African divestment has reemerged in its parallel today — the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its exploitative settler-colonial dynamics. Campus organizations, outside institutions and even states have attacked the current movement to stop investing in multinational corporations profiting from the military occupation, an occupation that has been condemned by several international organizations. Divestment efforts are dismissed as “unfair” and as seeking to “delegitimize” the state of Israel, and are criticized for being short-sighted in that they might disproportionately affect Palestinian workers.
Those who use this language seem very aware of the echo of their awkward historical parallel in their own words. They seek to distance themselves from the South African case by maintaining that Israel is a country with a “robust democracy,” far from the blatant racism of South African apartheid. They claim that Israel’s realities are more “complex” and that proponents of divestment do not do justice to “murky” rights and wrongs in Palestine.
There is nothing “complex” or “murky” about this conflict. It is one with an oppressor — the Israeli state — that exerts immense military, economic and social pressure on the oppressed: the Palestinian people. It is one where the oppressor manipulates physical space and human demography to an extreme degree. It is one where an oppressor confines the oppressed to lives of limitation and humiliation, yet still punishes their resistance.
This is the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It is a reality where 89 families in Gaza were wiped out in their entireties this summer. It is a reality where Palestinian families are rendered homeless by an immoral legal process while the (Palestinian) Authority meant to represent them is stripped of funding for trying to protect the rights guaranteed to them by international law. This is a reality where a massively oppressive economic and military system exerts tremendous pressure on an entire population.
Our silence is our complicity, and our investments are our support.
To achieve financial neutrality in this conflict, and encourage the genuine introspection that Israel needs to end its immoral military occupation, our institution must divest from the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Divestment weakens the multinational corporations which provide the infrastructure for and profit off of this occupation, making a genuine peace — a just peace — more possible. Make no mistake: As was the case in South Africa, history is marching forward. Now is the time to decide whether or not this institution will be on its right side.
Muzz Shittu ‘17
Contact Muzz Shittu at mushittu ‘at’ stanford.edu.