Columbia University Students Pass Israel Boycott Referendum
Columbia University students boycott Israel

The Pursuit of Justice

The Columbia College undergraduate student body voted in 2020 to recommend that Columbia University should “divest its stocks, funds, and endowment from companies that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts towards Palestinians [that fall] under the United Nations International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.” Of those 1,771 students who participated in the vote, 61 percent voted in favor, 27 percent voted against the referendum, and 12 percent abstained from voting.

The referendum was passed after two prior unsuccessful attempts to introduce the resolution at Columbia University. The vote resulted from the culmination of organizing since 2016 by members of the Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) group, which includes Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia-Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace members.

Earlier that year, University President Lee C. Bollinger condemned the divestment proposal due to his fear of a “mentality that goes from hard-fought debates about very real and vital issues to hostility and even hatred toward all members of groups of people simply by virtue of a religious, racial, national, or ethnic relationship. I can say that Jewish students are feeling this, and it’s wrong.”

A Jewish member of CUAD, Dan Nelson, argued that his criticism of Israel “is deeply rooted in my faith. […] Dangerous false equivalences between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have been weaponized to discredit the Palestinian cause by bad-faith actors, but the success of this vote shows how the pursuit of Palestinian liberation is harmonious with Jewish values and the pursuit of justice.”

University President Bollinger Dismisses the Vote

University President Bollinger promptly issued a statement in response to the overwhelming 61 percent vote to support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). The University would not make any changes to its investments. He cited five reasons for dismissing the vote:

  1. He stated that decisions about endowment funds are not to be made by referendum, but rather through a process involving Columbia University’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI).
  2. He said that the University has a “long-held understanding” that it should not change its investments based on views about complex issues.
  3. He did not believe there is consensus across the University community to support changing the investment policies.
  4. He found it “unfair and inaccurate to single out this specific dispute … when there are so many other, comparably deeply entrenched conflicts around the world.”
  5. He felt concerned that the BDS debate has increased anti-Semitism in the University community.

Columbia University has changed its investment policies to take political stances over complex policy issues in the past. For example, in 1985, Columbia was the first university to divest from South African apartheid by selling its $39 million stock in American companies conducting business in South Africa. In 2015, Columbia was the first university to divest from the private prison industry by ending its $10 million investment in Corrections Corporation of America and G4S. In 2017, Columbia University divested from companies that derived more than 35% of its revenue from thermal coal production. All of these divestments stemmed from student organizing and pressure.

US Aid to Israel

In an interview with Philip Weiss for Mondoweiss, Columbia Professor Rashid Khalidi commented on the results of the referendum. In response to Bollinger’s contention with singling out Israel/Palestine, Khalidi said: “Now what conflicts around the world do major corporations have major investments in? None. How many countries around the world, besides Israel, get $4 billion in US aid? None.”

Khalidi also disagreed with Bolinger’s fear about rising campus anti-Semitism stemming in BDS debates, arguing that feeling “hurt to hear Israel criticized” is not the same as serious questions of “racist, or overly harmful language, or threats of violence, [or] if people’s ethnicities or religions are being impugned.”

Columbia University students BDS

Why Did 61% of Columbia University Students Vote to Boycott?

The Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) statement about the call to divest described Columbia’s investments in Caterpillar, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Elbit Sytems, Mekorot, Hapoalim, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin as “actively support[ing] Israel’s continued occupation of and assaults against the Palestinian people, including the most recent military operation on the Gaza Strip which claimed over 2,104 Palestinian lives, including 1,462 civilians, of whom 495 were children and 253 women, according to the UN.”

From the CUAD website describing the target companies:



    • Supplies the IDF with wheel loaders, armored excavators, D9 bulldozers, and other heavy equipment
    • Equipment used to extralegally demolish Palestinian homes, erect illegal settlements, build Apartheid Wall and military checkpoints
    • Rachel Corrie, American activist, was killed by a Caterpillar bulldozer while protesting illegal demolition of a Palestinian home



    • Supplies the IDF with F-15 Eagle fighter jets, AH-64 Apache and Chinook CH-47 helicopters, Arrow 2 and 3 missiles, missile guidance systems, and other heavy munitions
    • UN commissions have reported the use of Boeing equipment to commit human rights violations and war crimes in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank
    • Boeing Apaches were observed firing on civilians during Operation Cast Lead





Campuses Across the Country Face Similar Campaigns to Boycott Israel

The Columbia referendum joined more than 250 other institutions who have voted to support BDS. The same year, the University of Illinois student body passed a similar BDS resolution. In 2018, nearly half of New York City’s Barnard College students participated in a similar BDS resolution, for which more than 64 percent voted in favor. Associated Students of California State University, East Bay voted unanimously in favor of a similar BDS resolution in 2018. In 2021, New York University’s student council followed suit and endorsed a BDS resolution.

Academic and university campus boycotts of Israel’s post-1967 military occupation, settlement building, and apartheid law is growing. Some are even facing backlash from their university’s administration and from counter protestors. A 2023 Gallup poll showed that Americans across the country are beginning to sympathize more with the human rights struggle Palestinians experience under Israel’s policies. More and more students are pressuring universities to divest from companies which enable human rights violations.

To learn more about Israel-Palestine and non-violent movements for peace and justice,

Visit the Promised Land Museum.

Host the Promised Land Museum traveling exhibit at your institution to bring awareness and understanding to the conflict.


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