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Following Human Rights Watch report concluding apartheid, Princeton must divest from Israel

<h6>Cityscape of the old city of Jerusalem in Israel by Berthold Werner / <a href="https://www.goodfreephotos.com/israel/jerusalem/cityscape-of-the-old-city-of-jerusalem-in-israel.jpg.php" target="_self">CC0</a></h6>
Cityscape of the old city of Jerusalem in Israel by Berthold Werner / CC0

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here. 

On April 27, Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive 200 page report detailing the human rights violations being committed on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. More specifically, for the first time ever, Human Rights Watch made the informed and evidence-based assessment that the actions of the Israeli government with regard to its treatment of the Palestinian people has crossed the threshold qualifying it as apartheid. 

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The report states that “the Israeli government has demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the [Occupied Palestinian Territory]” and that those factors “coupled with systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them” qualifies the situation as apartheid under existing international law. 

The release of this report is a clear signal. Princeton University must immediately and unequivocally divest its enormous $26 billion endowment from companies benefitting from this ongoing human rights crisis.

In just the past week, after violent riots broke out in Eastern Jerusalem, bombardments of missiles were launched by the extremist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip toward Israeli population centers. These were quickly returned by ongoing airstrikes by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). As of May 16 the death toll on the Gaza strip had reached 192 — including 58 children — with at least 10 Israelis killed, including two children. This is the first time since 2014 that rockets have been fired by Hamas toward Jerusalem, marking a significant turning point in a conflict that could very quickly escalate into war.

While there were reports of possible cease-fire discussions brought to the Israeli government by international mediators, Benjamin Netanyahu, the conservative Prime Minister of Israel, rejected these offers. Netanyahu also said in a statement last week that “[Israel] will continue to attack with all force.” The human toll of Israel’s arguably-disproportionate response has been unthinkable. On just Sunday alone, 42 Palestinians were killed and 50 more were injured in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes, marking it the deadliest attack so far of the current conflict.

The ongoing violence emphasizes the need for Princeton to ensure it is not complicit in Israel’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank. The University must immediately divest its endowment from companies actively benefiting from Israel’s apartheid regime.

This demand does not come without precedent. In 2002 the movement known as the Princeton Divestment Campaign succeeded in gaining three-hundred student and faculty signatures calling on the University to divest all assets from companies benefiting from conflict in the region. In 2015, the debate reemerged after a dozen tenured Princeton faculty members called publicly for the University to “divest from companies that ‘contribute to or profit from’ Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.” The effort culminated in an unsuccessful referendum in support of divestment that was voted on by the undergraduate student body.

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University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 has called the movement for Israel divestment on Princeton’s campus a distraction, saying that “there are much better ways of having conversations about the issues in the Middle East.” The CPUC Resources Committee, which makes recommendations on divestment to the Board of Trustees, said in 2015 that the movement to divest “had given rise to no consensus and was too recent to have provoked ‘sustained’ campus interest.” 

These kinds of cagey, obfuscating remarks parallel the administration’s response to calls for University divestment from apartheid South Africa in 1985. Despite almost universal support on campus for the issue, then-University President William Bowen GS ’58 stated that while the Board of Trustees was “unanimous in [their] condemnation of apartheid” they had concluded nevertheless that “divestiture is not the right means, for this University, to an end that many support strongly.” Even after the submission of a divestment petition with 3,000 signatures and a rally in front of Nassau Hall that resulted in the arrest of ninety protesters, the Board of Trustees only adopted a vague “selective divestiture” policy that lasted until 1994, following the end of South African apartheid. 

Most recently the movement for University divestment from the fossil fuel industry has brought back many of the same tensions between University interests and the very real concerns of students and faculty. While slight progress in the fossil fuel divestment campaign has recently been made, it has come — just as it did in 1985 — as the product of sustained student pressure on administration officials.

It is clear that students must once again mobilize in support of University divestment from companies contributing to and benefiting from Israel’s apartheid rule over the Palestinian people, as outlined by the Human Rights Watch report. The ongoing violence demonstrates that this issue, much like the movement to divest from South Africa and fossil fuels, should not be a political question that the University must grapple with; it should instead be a moral one. 

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Maintaining assets in companies that profit from and contribute to this human rights crisis contradicts every one of our core University values. Allowing it to continue would be a disgrace.

Eric Periman is a rising junior in the School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at eperiman@princeton.edu.

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