In early March, Penn students voted to pass a referendum for Penn to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Last week, a coalition of student groups announced their plans for a different divestment proposal, but this time it’s a bit more controversial.
Eight student groups –— Penn Arab Student Society, Penn for Immigrant Rights, Penn Students for Justice in Palestine, Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation, Penn Amnesty International, Penn Non-Cis and the Student Labor Action Project — announced in a Daily Pennsylvanian guest column on March 30 a new divestment movement called Penn Divest from Displacement, which proposes the University divest from corporations that profit through practices that displace people.
Penn Divest from Displacement identified seven companies involved in “human rights abuses related to the displacement of peoples.” The companies listed are involved in such fields as the private prison industry, drone manufacturing and the weaponization of bulldozers used against Palestinian homes in the West Bank.
The final point is where much of the controversy begins. The Penn Divest for Displacement proposal has elements similar to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movements, or BDS, which has sparked controversy across campuses nationwide.
In response to the movement, members of the Think Peace Coalition — a group of pro-Israel student leaders — have begun to vocalize their concerns about the proposal.
“[The] divestment resolution about global displacement blames Israel wholly for the current conflict,” College junior and President of Israel@Penn Daniela Jinich said. “The fact that four … companies specifically target divesting from Israel shows that this is not an unbiased divestment proposal of global displacement struggles … [it] takes a simplified stance on complicated and polarizing issues, ignoring valid narratives and pragmatic solutions, and thus promotes more separation in the Middle East and on our campus.”
“The campaign has been in the works for a really long time — over a year,” Engineering senior Lauren Ballester said of Penn Divest from Displacement. Ballester is a member of SJP and co-wrote the guest column announcing the campaign. “We were inspired by work on different campuses that’s being done to really ask the university for more student control over where our endowment goes.”
The Penn Arab Society, co-signers of Penn Divest from Displacement, wrote in a statement, "As students of this university, we believe in complete equality and justice for all people around the world. We are strongly opposed to having our name associated to companies that do not hold our same values or mission statement."
While Penn Divest from Displacement includes similar aspects to those of BDS, it also targets corporations that go beyond Palestine, such as the Corrections Corporation of America, which is the largest private prison company in the United States.
“I think it's unfortunate that people sort of conflate criticism of very specific policies that specific companies are committing to any kind of sweeping attack on a group of people,” Ballester said. “That’s obviously the last thing we are doing, want to do or mean to do at all, and that’s not what the movement is doing.”
Even though the proposal doesn’t sit well with most members of Think Peace, one faction of the Coalition welcomes the proposal as a way of helping dialogue.
“I think that Penn Divest made some good points,” said College sophomore Mira Nathanson, who is a board member of J Street and a member the Think Peace Coalition. “But my biggest reaction to the article is that I hope that in response, the Think Peace Coalition is going to make a stronger commitment to peace and specifically using stronger language in their mission statement.”
Nathanson, as well as other J Street members, have advocated for Think Peace to acknowledge the 1967 Israeli-Palestinian borders and oppose settlement expansion. The Coalition has chosen not to include these lines in its mission statement.
“I am hoping this divest movement will instead spawn the Think Peace Coalition to come back with stronger language to make people see that there are more viable solutions for peace than the divest movement,” Nathanson added. “I think the only way to do that is for Think Peace to come up with some stronger language.”