Student divestment motions in favour of Palestinian human rights are sweeping across universities in North America thanks to the tireless advocacy of countless student groups and allies. On March 23rd, 2022, the University of British Columbia’s student union, the Alma Mater Society (AMS), voted to divest from nine companies involved in or complicit in human rights violations against Palestinians. 

What does it mean to divest?

Many people have heard about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is a “Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality” started in 2005 and is considered one of the most direct and effective ways to support Palestine. Today, the movement is supported by countless notable individuals, unions, and NGOs. While there are three components to the movement, the one sweeping across college campuses is divestment, which refers to no longer investing money in something or someone. Across North America and parts of Europe, students have been urging their universities to divest their money, which in part comes from student tuition, from companies complicit in the occupation of Palestine, and who contribute to Israel’s apartheid system.

UBC votes to divest

The BDS movement is picking up steam on Canadian campuses. On February 16th of this year, the University of Toronto voted to divest from companies on settlements, followed by a vote by McGill students to boycott institutions complicit in Israeli apartheid on March 22nd. Most recently, UBC voted to divest from nine companies complicit in the occupation on March 23rd. According to Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, 19 student unions across the country have endorsed BDS to some extent, whether through full BDS motions or more targeted policies. 

On March 23rd, after almost four hours of debate, UBC’s AMS Council voted yes on a motion that would urge the university to divest from companies involved or complicit in “violating Palestinian human rights.” The motion also quoted UBC’s “responsible investment policy” in support of their motion. This vote is a huge step forward for the Palestinian human rights movement at UBC. Divestment has failed twice in the past at UBC. There were around 170 students who came out to support the motion, lining the corridors and even remaining in the meeting room throughout the debate period, wearing kuffeyes and holding signs urging the councilors to vote in favour. 

Uniquely, this motion was not put forward by a single group but instead by a Divestment Coalition of 20 student clubs including Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights UBC, the UBC Social Justice Centre, and Climate Justice UBC among others. This alone shows the shift that is happening on campus regarding Palestine, as the issue is being brought into the norms of progressive politics. This is a shift away from the norm which was being progressive except for Palestine, as now it is being accepted as a natural inclusion.

The implications of this motion are both symbolic and tangible. The actual process of divestment will require work and lobbying of the Board of Governors as they work to withdraw funds and facilitate alternative, ethical investments. Some councilors of the motion cited their concerns about its “feasibility.” Michelle Marcus, who was a lead on Climate Justice UBC’s move to urge the university to divest from fossil fuels, dismissed the questioning of feasibility and instead focused on the UN Principles of Responsible Investment, which highlights that “the companies complicit in these issues have strong financial risk associated with them…” As such, this argument shouldn’t be taken to heart as it is simply a deflection tactic. 

Response and Backlash

Unsurprisingly, just as those in favour of the motion had strong opinions, so did those who opposed it. UBC student clubs, such as Hillel BC, Israel on Campus, and the UBC Conservatives have issued statements denouncing the motion. The Israel on Campus statement asserted that the aim of the motion was the “demonization and delegitimization of the only functional democracy in the Middle East,” while both they and Hillel denounced it as “anti-Israel.” This type of criticism is quite common against any motion in favour of Palestinian rights and is not reflective of the actual aims of the BDS movement which is to, first and foremost, support Palestinians.

The language of the motion was painstakingly specific and targeted nine companies who have been proven to be complicit in violating human rights including Lockheed Martin, a known arms company, and Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are sold to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and have been shown to bulldoze Palestinian homes. The last part of the motion, which asked the AMS to “release a statement condemning the Israeli state’s system of apartheid and its occupation of Palestine” is similar to other AMS statements that have denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and stood in solidarity with protestors in Hong Kong. Israel’s apartheid system has been documented by several international organisations, as well as by Palestinians who have expressed these sentiments for decades. Speaking up for Palestinian human rights should not be controversial – and the recent divestment vote suggests that many agree. 

The Palestinian movement at UBC has worked tirelessly to have their university and student union be proud of standing in solidarity with them. This vote is monumental for Palestinians at UBC and one small step in a larger walk towards Palestinian liberation.