American Universities Are Complicit in Israel’s Human Rights Violations

Many US universities are tied to companies and institutions that perpetuate apartheid and ethnic cleansing in Israel. The Activist Investigative Committee explores these entanglements and their effect on academic independence and recent crackdowns against pro-Palestinian activists on campus.

Security Exchange Commission (SEC) filings and portfolio reports reviewed by The Activist show that many American universities have financial ties to businesses profiting from Israeli expansion and the Israeli state. Some of these connections are direct, with colleges investing in companies on the UN list. Others show colleges maintaining academic arrangements with Israeli institutions located on occupied land. More still showcase universities investing in companies that collaborate with the Israeli military or intelligence services.

In 2020, the United Nations published a list of 112 companies with connections to Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. Activities which would place a business on this list included “supply of equipment and materials facilitating the construction and the expansion of settlements,” the supply of “surveillance and identification equipment for settlements, the wall and checkpoints directly linked with settlements,” and providing “security services, equipment and materials to enterprises operating in settlements; among other things.” Since 2020, the UN Human Rights Council has removed 15 business entities from the list, on the grounds they were no longer involved in the previously listed operations. But 97 companies remain, and continue to profit from settlements that the UN Security Council called a “flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two States living side-by-side in peace and security.”

The Harvard Crimson published an analysis in 2020 showing Harvard’s Investment Management Company had $194 million invested in Booking Holdings, one of the original 112 companies condemned by the UN. Recent filings show that Harvard has severed its ties with Booking Holdings, but continues to invest in businesses collaborating with the Israeli military.

Notably, Harvard’s second largest investment is in Alphabet Inc. the parent company of Google. Two years ago, Google was one of two companies who won a contract to participate in the “Nimbus Project”— a $1.2 billion dollar cloud computing system operated by Google-in partnership with Amazon- and utilized by the Israeli government and military. Training documents obtained by The Intercept show the company intends to provide the Israeli state with numerous Google Cloud tools, including facial detection, automated image categorization, and object tracking, the same technology has been used to monitor and surveil Palestinians in the West Bank.

Columbia University’s connections to Israeli occupation are less diffuse. The Columbia Investment Management Company doesn’t disclose its holdings, only how much profit they produce. However, filings submitted to the Securities Exchange Commission give a more in-depth view of the college’s finances. As of November 14, Columbia’s third largest investment is in vacation rental company AirBnB. AirBnB is one of only five American businesses included in the United Nations’ Israeli settlements list. A 2019 report from Amnesty International showed AirBnB was one of many vacation companies that “list numerous hotels, B&Bs, attractions or tours in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” despite knowing “Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is governed by international humanitarian law under which Israeli settlements are deemed illegal.” Though AirBnB announced in 2018 they would stop listing rentals on occupied land, this policy was reversed a year later, and hasn’t changed since. A report from the European Union shows how considerably the number of Israeli settlements has increased, growing by 30% between 2021 and 2022.

“We were not aware of this investment but are unsurprised,” said Columbia-Barnard YDSA in a statement sent on November 6. “Columbia has a history of investing in bad actors, including security companies responsible for supplying unlawful Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, staffing private prisons and operating inhumane immigrant detention facilities in the United States.” The chapter also mentioned backlash against their BDS activity, and attempts by Columbia’s administration to suppress their work. “Anti-Palestinian students and staff have repeatedly harassed students, from written death threats to openly genocidal rhetoric. The university administration has responded harshly to actions hosted by our Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, doing everything from shutting down speaker events to closing almost all of the gates to campus for two weeks in response to planned pro-Palestine demonstrations.”

No one from the Columbia Investment Management Company responded to requests for comment.

The University of California has investments in businesses with ties to territory annexed by Israel. The university owns shares in General Electric, a multinational corporation with divisions in aerospace, energy, and manufacturing. GE is also spearheading the Genesis Wind project, Israel’s largest renewable energy venture, with 39 wind turbines in the Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights are a stretch of land wedged between Israel, Syria, and Jordan. Formerly controlled by Syria, Israel captured the region during the Six-Day War of 1967, and officially annexed it in 1981. Since its annexation, Golan has been recognized by the global community as a territory under Israeli occupation. The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution in 1981 condemning the annexation, writing “Israel’s decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect.” The U.K Foreign Office, Ambassadors from five U.N Security Council nations, and even the CIA factbook all considered the region to be “occupied,” at various times.

Coca Cola—another company the University of California owns stock in—maintains a relationship with the Central Bottling Company in Israel, who are one of their many “bottling partners.” The same partner operates, through a subsidiary, a distribution center in Atarot, an illegal settlement.

“Colleges should divest from companies with ties to Israel because Israel is a settler colonial project,” explained Gabriel McAdams, Secretary of UC Berkeley YDSA. McAdams noted how many American universities are land grant institutions, considering them “direct beneficiaries of the colonial violence that uprooted Native Americans from their land.” Though multiple colleges have taken strides to recognize this history, McAdams feels these attempts at atonement are undermined by investments in companies that are tied to the Israeli state. “Continued support for companies that have benefited from the colonial violence that Israel has committed against indigenous Palestinians shows us that the universities do not actually care about the rights of indigenous peoples.”

George Mason University’s portfolio shows comparable investments. Besides holdings in McDonalds—who’ve come under scrutiny since their Israel branch announced they would give free meals to IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) soldiers—the college also owns stock in Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest weapons manufacturer. Only four months ago, Israel paid $3 billion for 25 of Lockheed’s F-35 jets, a favorite of the country’s military. In 2010, Israel signed a $2.7 billion dollar F-35 deal with the United States, an arrangement that generated billions for Lockheed Martin. Even Lockheed’s F-16 aircraft have, according to their website, “been faithfully serving the Israel Air Force since the 1970s and 1980s.”

The same aircraft have been used in Israel’s sieges on Gaza. During the 2021 Israel-Palestine crisis which left 2,000 Palestinians wounded and 128 civilians killed, Lockheed’s F-16’s were described as a “mainstay of the bombardment,” in an analysis from Forbes. Likewise, a report from the UN Human Rights Council released in 2009 shows F-16s were used to target civilian infrastructure and refugee camps in Gaza during the siege of 2008-2009.

In a statement to The Activist, George Mason University YDSA said they were “well aware,” of their school’s ties to Israel, and that they are “committed to Palestinian liberation, and to ensuring we provide Mason students a space where they are able to denounce Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Gaza.”

Only four universities are included in this story. The United States is home to thousands of colleges, and most closely guard their investments, disclosing them neither in their own filings, nor documents provided to the IRS and SEC. But as the siege on Gaza continues, the BDS(Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement for divesting from entities with ties to the Israeli state grows. Students at Brown, Columbia, the University of Michigan, and more have called for their schools to cut ties with such businesses. Though these protesters are often met with resistance from administrative leaders,those actions haven’t slowed their organizing. Writing in the Columbia Spectator, Columbia Apartheid Divest spoke for a generation of BDS organizers, stating “We will not rest until Columbia divests from apartheid Israel, Palestinians are free, and liberation is achieved for all oppressed people worldwide.”