Analysis: What do the pro-Palestine students protesting on US college campuses really want?

ANALYSIS: College campuses across America have been shaken by unrest that has resulted in clashes with police, shut down some classrooms and captured the attention of the nation.

Although much of the initial focus has been on antisemitic incidents and how university officials and police are responding to the demonstrations, all of this raises a fundamental question: What do the pro-Palestinian protesters actually want?

The specific demands of the protesters vary somewhat from school to school yet the central demand is that universities divest from companies linked to Israel or businesses that are profiting off its war with Hamas. Universities have largely refused to budge on this demand, and experts say divestment may not have a significant impact on the companies themselves.

Other common threads include demanding universities disclose their investments, sever academic ties with Israeli universities and support a ceasefire in Gaza.

“We asked that Columbia University pull all investments away from companies that profit off of the genocide of Palestinians or Israeli companies that profit off of the oppression of Palestinians,” Althea, a student protester at Columbia, told CNN. Althea asked for her last name not to be used for privacy reasons.

Protest movements at some universities are also calling for school officials to protect free speech and spare students from being punished for participating in the protests.

At the University of Southern California, where dozens were arrested on Wednesday, protesters are demanding “full amnesty” for those brought into custody and that there be “no policing on campus.”

At Princeton University, protesters are demanding, among other things, that the Ivy League school end research on weapons of war “used to enable genocide,” according to a flyer at a campus demonstration on Thursday.

Some demands are local.

At Columbia University, where the pro-Palestinian protest movement started last week, protesters are demanding support for low-income Harlem residents, including housing and reparations, according to Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the student group responsible for organizing the encampment.

The Columbia protesters are also calling for the university to “disclose and sever all ties” with the New York Police Department.

Students are also calling for an academic boycott from Israeli universities. For example, Columbia protesters want the university to sever ties with the school’s center in Tel Aviv and a dual degree program with Tel Aviv University. New York University protesters use the school’s Tel Aviv center as a rallying cry as well.

Is it possible to divest?

Still, divestment is at the top of the list of demands from protesters and the one they mention most often.

As Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson addressed students at Columbia on Wednesday, students chanted: “Disclose, divest, we will not stop we will not rest.”

Like many major universities, Columbia has a massive endowment. It was valued at $13.6 billion, as of mid-2023.

And there is a history of student activists targeting endowments during demonstrations. In the 1980s, students successfully persuaded Columbia to divest from apartheid South Africa.

More recently, Columbia and other universities have divested from fossil fuels and private prisons.

Charlie Eaton, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced and author of “Bankers in the Ivory Tower,” said Columbia can “absolutely” make the choice to divest from Israel-linked investments.

“It’s not unreasonable practice for schools to make decisions about how they invest based not just on maximizing investment returns, but also around principles of equity and justice in what they invest in,” he said.

But Mark Yudof, chairman of the Academic Engagement Network, which opposes campus antisemitism, said it’s not a simple solution to implement.

“The truth is it’s sometimes murky to figure out who is doing business in Israel and what the relationship is to the war,” Yudof said.

Yudof, the former president of the University of California, said he’s not aware of a single university that has divested from Israel despite years of pressure to do so.

“I don’t think it will happen,” he said.

‘Hostile and threatening’

However, none of the universities have announced plans to divest from Israel-linked investments and some experts say they will be very reluctant to accept this demand.

“A significant obstacle to divestment is that any university supporting divestment would be sending a clear signal that they either: (a) acquiesce in; or (b) support the destruction of the State of Israel and its citizens,” said Jonathan Macey, a professor at Yale Law School.

Macey said that while such a move may be supported by protesters, it would be “viewed as hostile and threatening to many students, faculty and staff.”

Lauren Post, an analyst at the Anti-Defamation League, said the push for divestment is related to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Although Post acknowledged that some individuals may be pushing for divestment as a way to hold Israel accountable, she said the ADL views the goals of BDS as antisemitic.

“The goal – ultimately dismantling the state of Israel, is antisemitic,” said Post.

Yudof, the former University of California president, said he also feels it is antisemitic.

“It smacks of a double standard. Why is it only Israel?” He criticized protesting college students for focusing on Israel instead of undemocratic regimes around the world, including Iran and Russia.

It’s worth noting, however, that the student protests don’t directly say they are affiliated with BDS.

“We are not going anywhere until our demands are met,” Khymani James, a student at Columbia University, said during a news briefing Wednesday.

James, a student activist associated with the Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) coalition, has since apologized for saying on video that “Zionists don’t deserve to live.”

James acknowledged the statement in a post on X, saying it was from an Instagram Live video in January. “I misspoke in the heat of the moment, for which I apologize.”

The apology came early Friday morning, hours after an interview with CNN at Columbia where James repeatedly declined to apologize for the video, saying that the focus should be on Palestinian liberation.

Universities don’t own that much stock

There is also a debate over how effective divestment campaigns are.

One issue is that selling stock in a company means the university would give up its influence over the company.

“Be careful what you ask for. If you sell your stock, someone else will buy it and they may be less concerned about the issue you care about,” said Cary Krosinsky, a lecturer at Yale who has advised university endowments.

Another issue is that while university endowments are large, public companies are much bigger. If a university divests, many companies would not even notice it.

University endowments own approximately 0.1% of public companies, according to research by Krosinsky.

“0.1% is not going to move the needle very much. Someone else will buy the stock and life will go on,” he said.

Most university funds are invested with private equity funds and hedge funds, rather than broad-ranging mutual or index funds.

Of course, the divestment push is about more than directly punishing companies. It’s about a desire to send a message and raise awareness.

More than wanting to take down defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, protesters would view divestment as a symbolic victory for justice and equality.

Students are “complicit in what this institution does,” graduate student Basil Rodriguez said to CNN Wednesday, noting that students pay tuition.

Rodriguez is Palestinian herself, and said her family members have been “murdered and executed” and displaced.

Student protesters say the demands to disclose and to divest are interconnected.

Protesters argue that many of the financial interests of universities are opaque and the links to Israel may be even greater than officials realize.

“At the same time, this is only the tip of the iceberg,” Rodriguez said. “We demand full financial transparency.”