University of Toronto declines to divest from pro-Israel institutions

Apr 11, 2024

University of Toronto declines to divest from pro-Israel institutions

Pro-Palestinian student-organizers who staged a 30-hour occupation say they know this will be a long-haul fight, citing the long struggle in the 1980s and ’90s to get the institution to divest from apartheid South Africa and in the 2010s to divest from fossil fuel companies
Student-organizers from Occupy4Palestine hold a town hall on Apr. 9 to discuss president Meric Gertler's respond to their demands.

University of Toronto’s (U of T)  President Meric Gertler has officially rejected student group Occupy4Palestine’s demands to divest from companies and institutions supporting Israel’s military, restating the university’s commitment against taking “positions on social or political issues” and against “academic boycotts.”

But the students argue that by continuing these investments and cross-institutional relationships, the institution has already taken a political position.

According to the students, who held a town hall on Apr. 9, from January to March the university either renewed all or started new relationships with Israeli universities. Many, like Hebrew University and Technion have openly expressed their support for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

“Respectfully, Meric, your entire argument against divestment is prima facie absurd,” said Avi, a fourth year international student studying philosophy, as he read out the group’s response letter at the town hall, which was also being live streamed. He asked not to use his full name for privacy reasons. 

In a letter posted on the university’s website on Apr. 8, Gertler quotes the preamble of the university’s Policy on Social and Political Issues with Respect to University Divestment. It states that “As a general matter, the University does not take positions on social or political issues apart from those directly pertinent to higher education and academic research.”

“Accordingly,” Gertler wrote, “the University will not consider proposals for restrictions on its investments that require the institution to take sides in matters that are properly the subject of ongoing academic inquiry and debate.”

But the students say he is recycling arguments the university has been using since at least the 1980s, when the first occupation at U of T against South African apartheid took place. 

“This is an incorrect assessment of our current situation. … (E)nshrining a principle to divest and prevent future investments that support the functioning of the Israeli military is a legal obligation shared by all institutions in Canada to prevent their role in the crime of genocide.”

Social injury

According to the policy book Gertler quoted, when a divestment demand is made, the university’s response must be based on three principles: i) prudent investment, ii) social injury, iii) and actions taken by the Canadian government or other national or international bodies.

Principle ii (a) describes social injury as: “the injurious impact which the activities of a company are found to have on consumers, employees, or other persons, particularly including activities which violate, or frustrate the enforcement of, rules of domestic or international law intended to protect individuals against deprivation or health, safety, or basic freedoms.”

The students noted that the International Court of Justice’s finding that Israel may be committing genocide — as well as Canada’s suspension of new arms exports permits — put the school in violation of principles ii and iii.

At their Apr. 3 meeting following their 30-hour occupation, Gertler admitted the school’s Expendable Funds Investment Pool (EFIP) had investments in military holdings. In his Apr. 8 letter, he further noted that neither the university’s endowment nor the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) have “direct investments” or “direct holdings” in companies or institutions. 

“The Expendable Funds Investment Pool (EFIP), consisting of expendable gifts and working capital, holds direct investments in fixed-income products, but not in company securities,” he wrote.

However, Avi noted as he read the letter, “a divestment motion pursuant to the 2008 policy mentioned above would have had the mandate to … address indirect investments (such as investments in particular mutual funds or investments pools which themselves hold direct investments meeting our criteria).”

“This is a particularly sly move on Meric’s part,” he added, addressing the audience. “We don’t need to hold individual equity in, like, Hewlett Packard or Lockheed Martin [military manufacturers]. All we need to do is own equity in a mutual fund that holds those [investments].”

Circular restatement

Addressing the demand for financial transparency, Gertler said that UTAM takes a “manager-of-managers” approach, meaning they seek out third-party investment managers.

Those third-parties don’t disclose their investments “out of concern for protecting their competitive advantage,” he wrote, adding that “UTAM also publishes the names of its external investment managers engaged for the University’s portfolios.” As such, “the University will not alter its disclosure practices.”

But that did not meet the students’ demands. Avi argued that Gertler was employing “a circular re-statement of … the very policies that are in question.” 

But even if those university policies are followed, Avi further argued, the approach remains “antithetical to the university’s fundamental mission and values” of fiscal responsibility and accountability, as outlined in the Governing Council’s 1992 Statement of Purpose.

“We firmly disavow your decision,” Avi said to an applauding audience. 

A long-haul battle

The first occupation against South African apartheid at U of T  took place in 1987, though the movement itself began in 1983. Failing to have their demands met, the students at the time would go on to storm the Governing Council’s subsequent meetings, which would set the stage for continuing demonstrations and for an eventual vote on divestment a year later. 

But it would take until 1990 — including another three-hour occupation by 25 students — before the university’s pension fund actually divested. 

“Robert Wilson, an investment administrator, explained that the trustees of the pension fund were obliged to ignore moral considerations and think only of good returns on investment,” according to a case study posted on the Global Nonviolent Action Database

In 2005, the first Israel Apartheid Week took place at the university under the auspices of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Then-president David Naylor also shot down any possibilities of divesting from Israeli universities, as he made clear in a letter to Sally Hunt, then-general secretary of the British University and College Union — a letter Gertler drew heavily from.

As of time of publishing this article, more than 2100 North American academics — 117 from U of T — have signed an open letter condemning Israel’s destruction of all 12 Palestinian universities in Gaza. Nobody in the president’s office has signed it.

The movement to push the school to divest from fossil fuels  took about 10 years before succeeding, from 2012 until 2021, for much the same reasons. Divestment from tobacco required struggle from 1992 to 2007.  

Throughout it all, the responses from the university’s top brass have remained the same, says Mohammad Yassin, a fourth-year economics student originally from Gaza — namely, that “The university is not political and shouldn’t use its economic power to protest the government for policy.”

“This is not sustainable,” said Yassin, whose family is still in Gaza. 

The students are aware that this is a protracted fight, says Avi, noting that the point is not so much to score immediate victories as much as it is documenting the university’s “nefarious mechanisms” that keep dissenting voices suppressed.

“What’s more important to us is to fight the fight,” Avi told The Media Co-op after the event. 

“If this is rough terrain, it’s to still walk on that terrain, because the steps that we take, we are hoping … can be cited as evidence that the largest university in Canada has this mobilized opposition to these policies.”

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