OPINION: Pomona endowment disclosure must include divestment from Israeli occupation

Many people yell and walk down a street.
In addition to divesting its endowment from fossil fuels, the subject of the December student protest pictured above, Pomona College must likewise divest from companies involved in the occupation of Palestine, writes guest columnist Sarah Burch PO ’22. (Nanako Noda • The Student Life)

Throughout this school year, not a single presidential email to Pomona students has gone by without a mention of “community,” particularly in the context of the ongoing pandemic and its repeated surges. The use of collectivist language to paper over power imbalances in decision-making and access to information comes as no surprise, particularly to those of us who have watched the Pomona administration’s response to student and faculty calls for endowment disclosure over the years. As 5C Divest activist Ethan Vitaz PZ ’22 wrote last week in TSL, the college has continuously refused calls for endowment transparency, with the Board of Trustees in a recent meeting refusing even to put to a vote whether to disclose the percentage of Pomona’s endowment funds invested in fossil fuels.

While it is well known that Pomona has an astronomical endowment, which recently cleared the high-water mark of $3 billion, the implications of such a number often go unconsidered. As divestment movements have identified, there is often a great deal of exploitation lurking in opaque investment portfolios. The overwhelming student approval of the recent ASPC referendum to both disclose the percent of the Pomona endowment invested in fossil fuels and to divest from fossil fuels is a major step in reckoning with the real cost of these institutions. I wholeheartedly commend ASPC, the 5C Divest organizers and the entire Pomona College student body for recognizing the dire need for disclosure and divestment from fossil fuels. 

However, it behooves us to remember that students organizing for Palestinian liberation across the Claremont Colleges have also been seeking to draw attention to the endowment for years, calling for total disclosure of the Colleges’ investments and total divestment from companies on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions list — companies complicit in perpetuating the Israeli occupation of Palestine. BDS, a movement in solidarity with Palestinian liberation, calls for the boycott of, divestment from and sanctions on the Israeli apartheid regime. Its goal is to build international pressure to end the illegal military occupation of Palestine, end discrimination against Palestinians living within the state of Israel and to allow Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes. 

At the 5Cs, pro-BDS organizers have worked alongside the goal of fossil fuel divestment, understanding that the struggle against profit-driven destruction of the environment and the struggle for decolonization are not only linked, but frequently one and the same fight. Indigenous land defenders from Standing Rock to Wet’suwet’en land have demonstrated this, standing against oil pipeline construction: a devastating environmental threat made possible by the settler-colonial claim to their sovereign lands.

The Palestinian liberation struggle, too, has always fought against Israeli greenwashing and environmental destruction, which goes hand in hand with the militarism that undergirds the occupation of Palestine. The same U.S. defense budget that hands over $3 billion (no relation) yearly in military funding to Israel also funds the largest polluter of any individual organization in the world, the U.S. military. The extraction and use of fossil fuels is historically deeply tied to histories of war and imperialism, meaning that a movement for environmental justice that ignores Palestinian liberation fails to get to the root of the problem: the global legacy of colonial extraction and exploitation.

Increasingly, students across the 5Cs have recognized this entwinement, and it is no coincidence that support for divestment from fossil fuels and from Israeli apartheid has grown in tandem. Pitzer College has long seen organizing for fossil fuel divestment, and its faculty and student representatives showed their support for BDS and Palestinian liberation in 2019 in their historic vote to suspend Pitzer’s Haifa University study abroad program, later undemocratically overturned by President Melvin Oliver. Pomona’s student government, too, has been a staunch ally of the Palestinian cause, most recently in the unanimous passage in 2021 of a resolution to divest ASPC’s own funds from the Israeli occupation. 

Educational institutions across the U.S. have joined the 5Cs in recognizing the need for divestment from the Israeli occupation, furthered by a strengthening international consensus that the occupation of Palestine is not only illegal under international law but also constitutive of an apartheid regime. The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, for instance, submitted a report to the UN last month finding that the actions of the Israeli regime in the occupied West Bank “amount[s] to the crime of apartheid under international law.” Undergraduates at Harvard, Columbia and the University of Michigan, among others, have taken up the call for divestment from the Israeli occupation and made similar connections to movements against fossil fuels.

The recent banners dropped across the Claremont Colleges during Palestine Freedom Week made clear their demand: “5C ADMIN: DIVEST FROM ISRAELI APARTHEID.” Calls for endowment disclosure and divestment from fossil fuels without the simultaneous call for BDS are incomplete, and while there may never be an ethical endowment, it is our obligation as students in the U.S. to support the Palestinian struggle for liberation in material ways. I urge ASPC and the 5C student body not to abandon Palestine, but to maintain consistency and moral clarity on this issue, about which there can be no compromise.  Moves for endowment disclosure and divestment must address both fossil fuels and investment in the Israeli occupation, not only because there is clear student support on both issues, but because the environmental and Palestinian struggles must be seen as one and the same – as the struggle against the destruction of war and imperialism.

Guest columnist Sarah Burch PO ’22 loves fiction and 1980s media in all forms, and is on a much anticipated gut health journey. 

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