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Columbia-Affiliated Union Theological Seminary Votes to Divest from Israel’s War on Gaza

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As student protests around the world call for their educational institutions to divest from companies with ties to Israel, we speak to the Reverend Dr. Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical seminary affiliated with Columbia University that is one of the first schools to begin divesting from companies that “profit from war in Palestine/Israel.” Jones says divestment is an extension of Union’s “long policy of trying our best to bring our values, our core mission and our conscience to bear on how we invest our money,” and credits student activists with pushing the administration to action. Jones criticizes Columbia’s decision to arrest student protesters with a “police takeover” and “violent decampment,” in contrast to Union’s approach to student political expression. “We support students learning what it means to find their voice and speak out for justice and freedom,” she says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Among the leading demands of students protesting the war in Gaza across the United States for the past month have been calls for universities to disclose and divest from companies with ties to Israel. While many universities have sought to break the Gaza solidarity encampments by force, calling in police, suspending, expelling students — over, it’s believed, about 3,000 students and faculty and allies have been arrested across the country — other institutions have responded to calls for divestment.

Among them is the Union Theological Seminary here in New York, an ecumenical seminary affiliated with Columbia University. Last week, the Union announced its Board of Trustees had endorsed a divestment plan from, quote, “companies profiting from war in Palestine/Israel.” In a statement, they wrote they have, quote, “taken steps to identify all investments, both domestic and global, that support and profit from the present killing of innocent civilians in Palestine, whose numbers are now over 34,000 — and a humanitarian crisis of ever-growing magnitude. Union’s president, faculty, and students have repeatedly made strong public calls for an immediate ceasefire and will continue to do so until this continually escalating war has stopped. These calls are supported by today’s decision by Union’s Investment Committees to withdraw support from companies profiting from the war,” end-quote.

For more, we’re joined by the president of Union Theological Seminary, the Reverend Dr. Serene Jones. Her recent piece for Religion News is headlined “What we have to learn from students leading the charge for justice.” She’s joining us in our New York studio.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Dr. Jones. It’s great to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: I was just at Union Theological Seminary for the two-day retirement conference of the Colombia University Edward Said professor, Rashid Khalidi. It was supposed to be at Columbia, but it had to be moved. The Columbian — the president of Columbia had called in the New York police twice. Well over a hundred people were arrested. The encampment was destroyed. Union has taken a very different approach, though you are affiliated with Columbia University. Can you talk about the decision you’ve made? And for presidents of universities and colleges and seminaries around the country, explain how your Board of Trustees came to this decision.

REV. SERENE JONES: Well, thank you.

And in terms of the decisions that we’ve made since the beginning of the war, but also increasingly since the beginning of the encampments and the student protests, is we have a long-standing policy of not allowing the police on our campus except in the case of a serious crime. And our campus, we consider it a sanctuary, a place of safety. And so, rather than responding with arrests, with penalizing students, we support protesters. We support students learning what it means to find their voice and speak out for justice and freedom.

So, that meant, in this situation, opening up our campus to all of the surrounding campuses, where people were being expelled, where events weren’t allowed to happen, and opening our doors. So, we had Columbia classrooms meeting on our campus. We had events. Yesterday we had the Columbia Law School do their graduation in our chapel. So, it’s been very active. And among those things are a Passover Seder, that the students who were Jewish in the encampment asked if they could come do a seder on our campus. We’ve had Muslim prayers on Friday on the campus. We’ve just — our doors are wide open, which is what a school, a university should be in times like this, places for voices and places where community happens. Not a hard decision on our part.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Jones, I wanted to ask you: How does your school now plan to work with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, which handles, I understand, some $4 trillion in managed assets for over 300 institutions?

REV. SERENE JONES: Yes, working with the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility is one piece of a multipronged strategy. Our decision to work with them has to do with our look at our own investments, which are very small because of preexisting screens we have against armaments and guns. This ups that to defense industries and to any body profiting from the war. And we’re going to extend from there forward. But what ICCR does is allow multiple faith traditions and faith communities to pool their resources in order to bring pressures to bear against particularly intractable companies who have been previously nonresponsive to divestment, pressures of divestment. So, it’s the place where we both teach our students what it means to participate in socially responsible investing, and it’s a collective strategy for bringing pressure to bear.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Union has also said that — in its announcement, that it is, quote, “exploring investments that proactively support humanitarian and entrepreneurial companies doing positive work in the region.” What would that look like?

REV. SERENE JONES: So, we’re still looking into all of this to see what the specifics of it are. We have various lists — I haven’t even seen the lists — of the companies that we are targeting to divest from. And we are exploring also through ICCR and others how we might make positive investments in the region. So, I don’t have any specifics on that, but that is the intention. Just to be clear, when we made the decision to divest and to invest in humanitarian support, it was a decision that was very firm and clear and directed, but it is just the beginning of the process of actually implementing it, which we take very seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you can explain socially responsible investments, SRI, the kind of screen that you use? And have you spoken to the presidents of Columbia and Barnard in the actions that they took, arresting so many, well over a hundred, of their students?

REV. SERENE JONES: So, socially responsible investing screens, Union has long had them with respect to our endowment. Our first major divestment was from South Africa, U.S. companies doing business in South Africa. And that socially responsible screens mean you tell the company that manages your investments, “Do not put money here. And if we have it, withdraw it and move it somewhere else.” We have screens for armaments. We have screens for guns. We most recently have a screen for for-profit prisons. We were the first school to divest from fossil fuels, way back in 2014. And so, this is just a continuation of what has been a long policy of trying our best to bring our values, our core mission and our conscience to bear on how we invest our money. So, those screens go in place, and it stops investments going forward and begins to work on divesting going backwards.

AMY GOODMAN: And have you spoken to the Columbia and Barnard presidents? I believe both staffs have had no-confidence votes in their presidents.

REV. SERENE JONES: Yes. So, I know both of them. I have —

AMY GOODMAN: Because you’re affiliated, right? What is your relationship?

REV. SERENE JONES: So, we’re affiliated in that we have a long-standing friendly relationship with Columbia, but we’re actually a completely separate entity. We have our own board, our own endowment. So we’re different from, for instance, Barnard and Teachers College.

Most of my communications have been directly to the Union community, but I’ve been very clear in expressing alarm. And in the most recent case of the police, basically, takeover of Morningside Heights and the violent decampment and breaking into the admissions building, I was there to witness that. And I publicly, adamantly condemned those actions. So, that is writing to the Union community about my position on them. Many Union students have been part of the encampment and part of those actions, and we have refused to take action against them for their actions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Jones, even before the encampments, not only Columbia and Barnard, but many universities around the country had been clamping down on student protests, overnight changing their rules and regulations, requiring permission beforehand to even have a rally, suspending student organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. What is your sense of the message that these university authorities sent to the students in the months before the encampment?

REV. SERENE JONES: Yes, those policies suddenly sprung to life. Initially, they were presented as if they had been long-standing, but they weren’t. And very early, the message got out that this is not a place where your voice can be heard. And don’t even try telling students they have to give two weeks’ notice for a protest. As an activist my whole life, I can’t remember when we ever knew two weeks in advance when we were going to have a protest. So, it was a setup from the beginning to create the foundation for taking the kinds of actions that they have.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us, the Reverend Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary here in New York. Before that, she was a professor of religion and head of women’s studies at Yale University. Her recent piece for Religion News is headlined “What we have to learn from students leading the charge for justice.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.

Dr. Jones mentioned for-profit prisons. That’s what we’re going to take on next. When we come back, immigration is a top issue for voters this year. We’ll speak with the author of the new book, Unbuild Walls: Why Immigrant Justice Needs Abolition. Stay with us.

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