Editorial: A Call for Divestment

The Editorial Board expresses support for the recently passed resolution by the Association of Amherst Students and addresses arguments against divestment.

The Association of Amherst Students passed a resolution calling for the college to divest from companies that facilitate Israel’s occupations and blockades of Palestinian territories, unlawful settlements, and systemic displacement and widespread violence against Palestinians on April 25. The resolution also calls for increased financial transparency and accountability at the college.

In the past few months, Amherst faculty, alumni, and students have repeatedly called to divest from Israeli violence and occupation in Palestine, similar to efforts at universities and colleges across the United States. As the death toll of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza approaches 35,000, the need for divestment has never been more pressing. The Amherst Student editorial board endorses this call for divestment.

In a recent letter published in The Student, President Michael Elliott and Chair of the Board of Trustees Andrew Nussbaum reiterated the college’s rejection of the call for divestment. The Editorial Board argues that their reasoning unravels under closer examination and lacks moral courage.  

Elliott and Nussbaum raised concerns about the practicality of divestment given that the college’s operating budget “depends substantially upon the endowment” in order to offer competitive faculty salaries and the college’s financial aid program. Amherst’s reliance upon its endowment is the second highest among all colleges and universities, they write.

We point, however, to the college’s decision to divest from fossil fuels as a recent instance in which the Board of Trustees was able to overcome the practical obstacles to divestment in order to formalize its ideological commitment to sustainability. Furthermore, we reject the assumption that the board is unable to identify profitable investments that do not enable the mass death and displacement of Palestinians. Just as the college was able to commit to divesting from fossil fuels without compromising the endowment as a source of funding, we call on the trustees to reallocate funds divested from Israel’s violence by identifying ethical alternatives.

The trustees, Elliott and Nussbaum explained, maintain that the threshold for divestment must be “extremely high.” They continued, “In this case, divestment poses significant ethical and practical challenges and fails to meet that high threshold.”

While the Editorial Board agrees that the threshold for divestment ought to be high, we reject the claim that the massacre of people in the Gaza Strip fails to meet such a threshold. On the contrary, Israel’s ongoing bombardment and starvation of Gaza are perfectly described by the criteria for divestment the board have previously laid out. According to the Trustee Resolution on Investments in Sudan, divestment “should be considered rarely and only in the face of human atrocities that are wholly inconsistent with the moral and ethical values of Amherst College”.

The use of internationally-banned chemical weapons, the targeting of civilian hospitals and places of worship, the mass shooting of civilians seeking food from aid trucks, and the destruction of all universities in the Gaza Strip are just some of the “human atrocities” perpetrated by the Israeli government since last October. All of these and more, we argue, are “wholly inconsistent with the moral and ethical values of Amherst College.”

Elliott and Nussbaum’s letter claims that “there is no shared consensus across the college community that [divestment] is an action we should take.” The Editorial Board believes that there should be more formal efforts to assess the stance of the college community on the issue. So far, there is no evidence of a good faith effort by the college administration and the board to assess whether or not such a consensus exists.

The information that is available, however, points to the community’s support for divestment. The AAS’ resolution was written and passed as a result of a substantial portion of the student body voicing their support for divestment. Rarely have AAS meetings attracted such high non-AAS attendance as the special meeting called to discuss the divestment resolution last week — the overwhelming majority of attendees were in support of divestment. The open letter calling for divestment has continued to accrue alumni signatures since its publication in The Student, and its signatories are now nearly 500. We hope that the upcoming faculty vote on the issue of divestment will continue to echo these sentiments in favor of divestment.

Elliott and Nussbaum write in their letter that “the endowment is not an appropriate or effective tool for foreign policy debate and deliberation.” We find this argument weak in its lack of consideration of the college’s history of divestment. From South African apartheid to the genocide in Darfur, the college has a history of divesting from companies complicit in global human rights abuses. Furthermore, even if the college’s goal was truly neutrality on this issue, that goal would not be met by continuing to fund a foreign government’s military campaign. However, rejecting divestment is not a neutral act: The decision not to divest is a deeply political one — a tacit endorsement of the cruel acts that have cost 14,000 children their lives.

Elliott and Nussbaum’s letter further argues that if the college was to divest, it “would have no measurable impact on the crisis in Gaza.”

We agree that Amherst’s divestment will not end the crisis in Gaza, and we concede that divestment would not have an immediate measurable impact on the ground. However, the symbolism of an elite institution refusing to continue to be complicit in Israeli human atrocities is significant. Hampshire College was the first institution to divest from South African apartheid. Their divestment led other institutions across the country, including Amherst, to divest as well. The accumulation of these actions led to mass capital flight from South Africa which helped end the apartheid. Similarly, what may start as a symbolic act may lead other colleges and universities to divest from Israel’s human rights abuses and may even place pressure on the U.S. government to reconsider its full-throated support for Israel.

The issue of divestment is also an issue of financial transparency and accountability. That advocates of divestment do not have enough information available to them to make informed demands about divestment is deeply problematic. The mystification of how endowment investment works, what the college is invested in, and who the college works with as asset managers prevents the college community from holding our college’s finances accountable.

Elliott and Nussbaum cited the control of Amherst’s investments by asset managers as a practical challenge to divestment. However, the exact relationship between the administration and these managers, as well as the extent of the trustees’ ability to influence their decisions, remains unknown. Although information on Amherst’s exact holdings is confidential, students are currently able to review a small portion of the college’s investments through their Amherst credentials. Expanding access to investment records for verified members of the Amherst community allows for members to target specific companies for divestment and hold more concrete, and more productive, conversations with administrators as a result while respecting the confidentiality of that information. Additionally, much of the conversation around divestment has revolved around degrees of responsibility — direct or indirect investments in companies directly or indirectly supporting the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza. Open access to information about the endowment and investments allows those calling for divestment to research specific companies’ involvement and resolve some of this ambiguity.

More fundamental than all of this is that divestment is the only morally sound option available to the college in the face of the acute human suffering we are seeing in Gaza. Our education should not come at the expense of human lives. We implore the board to take steps to divest with the urgency that the crisis in Gaza demands.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 17; dissenting: 1; abstaining: 0)