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Students Demanding Divestment: You’re on the Right Side of History

To the brave students following in our noble tradition, I say, you are on the right side of history. Dare to struggle, dare to win!

By Marjorie Cohn
Professor Emerita, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Author’s Note: The following are remarks I delivered on Saturday, May 4, 2024 at the 55-year reunion of the Stanford University antiwar movement, in which I participated. On April 3, 1969, an estimated 700 Stanford students voted to occupy the Applied Electronics Laboratory (AEL), where classified research on electronic warfare was being conducted at Stanford. That spawned the April Third Movement (A3M), which holds reunions every five to 10 years. The sit-in at AEL, supported by a majority of Stanford students, lasted nine days. Stanford moved the objectionable research off campus, but the A3M continued with sit-ins, teach-ins and confrontations with police in the Stanford Industrial Park.

This reunion comes at an auspicious time, with college campuses erupting all over the country in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Once again, 55 years later, Stanford students are rising up for peace and justice. They have established a “People’s University” encampment and they are demanding that Stanford: (1) explicitly condemn Israel’s genocide and apartheid; (2) call for an immediate ceasefire, and for Israel and Egypt to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza; and (3) immediately divest from the consumer brands identified by the Palestinian BDS National Committee and all firms in Stanford’s investment portfolio that are complicit Israeli war crimes, apartheid and genocide.

At this moment in history, there are two related military occupations occurring simultaneously – 5,675 miles apart. One is Israel’s ongoing 57-year occupation of Palestinian territory, which is now taking the form of a full-fledged genocide that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians. The other is at Columbia University, where the administration has asked the New York Police Department to occupy the school until May 17. Both occupations are fueled by the Zionist power structure. Both have weaponized antisemitism to rationalize their brutality.

The students at Columbia are demanding that the university end its investments in companies and funds that are profiting from Israel’s war against the Palestinians. They want financial transparency and amnesty for students and faculty involved in the demonstration. Most protesters throughout the country are demanding an immediate ceasefire and divestment from companies with interests in Israel. More than 2,300 people have been arrested or detained on U.S. college campuses.

Israel has damaged or destroyed every university in Gaza. But no university president has denounced Israel’s genocide or supported the call for divestment.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement was launched in 2005 by 170 Palestinian civil society organizations who described BDS as “non-violent punitive measures” to last until Israel fully complies with international law. That means Israel must (1) end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle its barrier wall; (2) recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their land as mandated by UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

Boycotts are the withdrawal of support for Israel, and Israeli and international companies that are violating Palestinian human rights, including Israeli academic, cultural and sporting institutions. Divestment occurs when universities, churches, banks, pension funds and local councils withdraw their investments from all Israeli and international companies complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights. Sanctions campaigns pressure governments to stop military trade and free-trade agreements and urge them to expel Israel from international fora.

“A particularly important source of Palestinian hope is the growing impact of the Palestinian-led nonviolent BDS movement,” according to Omar Barghouti, co-founder of BDS. It “aims at ending Israel’s regime of military occupation, settler-colonialism, and apartheid and defending the right of Palestinian refugees to return home.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the BDS movement an existential threat to Israel – an absurd claim in light of Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The BDS movement is modeled largely on the boycott that helped end apartheid in South Africa. As confirmed by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Israel also maintains a system of apartheid. Israel’s system is “an even more extreme form of the apartheid” than South Africa’s was, the South African ambassador told the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the recent hearing on the legality of the Israeli occupation.

The U.S. has a long, proud history of boycotts – from the civil rights bus boycott to the United Farm Workers Union’s grape boycott. But at the behest of Zionists, anti-boycott legislation has been passed at the federal and state levels to prevent the American people from exercising their First Amendment right to boycott.

“The genocide underway in Gaza is the result of decades of impunity and inaction. Ending Israel’s impunity is a moral, political and legal imperative,” Palestine’s Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told the ICJ. “Successive Israeli governments have given the Palestinian people only three options: displacement, subjugation or death; these are the choices, ethnic cleansing, apartheid or genocide.”

“Israel restricts every aspect of Palestinian life, from birth to death, resulting in manifest human rights violations and an overt system of repression and persecution,” al-Maliki said. “Through indiscriminate killing, summary execution, mass arbitrary arrest, torture, forced displacement, settler violence, movement restrictions and blockades, Israel subjects Palestinians to inhumane life conditions and untold human indignities, affecting the fate of every man, woman and child under its control.”

The Israeli military is poised to compound its genocidal campaign by ethnically cleansing 1.4 million people sheltering in Rafah, who have nowhere to flee. The violence in Gaza did not start on October 7, 2023, with the killing of some 1,200 Israelis by Hamas. It is the continuation of Israel’s brutal Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”) that began 75 years ago.

The Ambassador of Belize told the ICJ, “No state reserves to itself the right to systematically violate the rights of a people to self-determination — except Israel. No state seeks to justify the indefinite occupation of another’s territory — except Israel. No state commits annexation and apartheid with impunity, except — it seems — Israel.” He said that “Israel must not be allowed such blatant impunity.”

Yet the U.S. government continues to fund Israel’s occupation and genocide, and protect the Israeli regime from any accountability. The U.S. also provides Israel with diplomatic cover, consistently vetoing resolutions in the Security Council that call for an enduring ceasefire.

Israeli officials believe that the International Criminal Court is about to issue arrest warrants for senior Israeli government officials, including Netanyahu, for their crimes, including the obstruction of humanitarian aid to the people starving to death in Gaza. Hamas leaders also reportedly face arrest warrants. The Biden administration is taking steps to shield Israelis from ICC arrest warrants.

Meanwhile, Francesca Albanese, United Nations special rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territory, called for an arms embargo and sanctions on Israel. The amazing student movement that only promises to grow will hopefully be a game changer in stopping Israel’s US-backed genocide.

To the brave students following in our noble tradition, I say, you are on the right side of history. Dare to struggle, dare to win!


Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, dean of the People’s Academy of International Law and past president of the National Lawyers Guild. She sits on the national advisory boards of Assange Defense and Veterans For Peace. A member of the bureau of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, she is the U.S. representative to the advisory council of the Association of American Jurists. Her books include Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral and Geopolitical Issues.

This article originally appeared at Common Dreams; licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Image: Alex Chis Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 DEED

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