Divestment Outweighs Real Lives


The divestment movement is still going strong at Swarthmore. For the past week, divestment advocates have occupied a hallway of Parrish, quietly “sitting in” against the board of managers’ decision to not divest from fossil fuels. Although campus-wide enthusiasm for divestment has waned over the past year, Mountain Justice hopes the sit-in, along with famed environmentalist Bill McKibben’s visit to campus, will spur a divestment revival. I admire the passion of Mountain Justice members. They dream of divestment with a fervor that supersedes practicality, and in some ways, that is inspiring. I also commend protesters on hosting an unobtrusive and reasonable protest. It appears that Mountain Justice has come a long way from their dark days of overthrowing board meetings. With that said, I’d like to call attention to a side of divestment no one is talking about-its potential to harm the poorest of the poor.

It’s no surprise that many Swarthmore activists display a crossover between causes. It’s quite common to see a member of Mountain Justice take a breather from divestment to crusade for health care reform or raising the minimum wage. The majority of those sitting in for divestment wear the term “bleeding-heart liberal” like a badge of honor. Why then is there little concern about what divestment will do to those living in developing nations around the world?

Caleb Rossiter, a statistics professor at American University, aims to shed light on the real world consequences of divestment. In his article “Sacrificing Africa for Climate Change”, Rossiter argues that divesting from fossil fuel companies would drastically halt the economic progress of developing nations, as they have the greatest need for affordable and reliable energy. “Where is the justice for Africans when universities divest from energy companies and thus weaken their ability to explore for resources in Africa? Where is the justice when the U.S. discourages World Bank funding for electricity-generation projects in Africa that involve fossil fuels, and when the European Union places a “global warming” tax on cargo flights importing perishable African goods?” Rossiter asks. And he’s right. While Swarthmore’s divestment will minimally impact fossil fuel companies, if the movement were to have the large-scale success Mountain Justice hopes for, its results will be anything but socially just for developing nations.

Fossil fuels produce efficient and powerful energy. When World Bank estimates show that fewer than a quarter of African families have electricity, ease of access to low cost energy is key. For those in the developing world, implementing the technology required to harness wind or solar energy is unaffordable, and the power extracted from these sources is a fraction of what’s possible through fossil fuels. It’s impossible to predict whether encouraging Swarthmore to reinvest in alternative energy companies would hasten the development of affordable energy sources. The reality is fossil fuel companies are some of the greatest investors in the search for alternative energy solutions. They have tremendous incentives to find new energy sources. They know their main resources for profit are limited, and staking an early claim to new sources of energy would ensure their future success. The research, technology, and the knowledge just aren’t there yet. If divestment causes fossil fuel companies to raise their prices, how will the developing world afford energy? If the divestment movement achieves their dreams of bankrupting Big Oil, what solutions do the poorest have?

According to the World Bank, the average African business is cut off from power for 56 days each year, crippling economic progress. Progress that could improve agriculture, education, and overall quality of life for Africans. As far as commerce and infrastructure go, foreign companies don’t want to invest in countries with unreliable energy, which further limits opportunities for growth. Rossiter says, “Energy poverty is stunting the sort of economic growth Africa needs if it is to move from 59 years of life expectancy to the 79 that China has through 20 years of economic growth. . .with almost a billion Africans alive today, that is about 20 billion years of life lost.”

Privilege is the word that comes to mind when I think of divestment activism. As I write, protesters are comfortably camped out under the soft glow of electric lights, ordering pizza delivered by a Honda that runs on gasoline, and skipping classes that cost their parents $60,000 per year. They take these luxuries for granted, continuing to advocate for an idea that promises to deny the most basic amenities to the neediest people. Meanwhile, a small village somewhere is grateful to have a working generator and fresh water for the day. My question to Mountain Justice is: Does divestment outweigh the welfare of real lives?

The Phoenix’s Coverage of Hussein Aboubakr Event

On Tuesday, Swarthmore Students for Israel brought Hussein Aboubakr to campus to speak. After some students who attended began shouting at the speaker, we were contacted by the Swarthmore Phoenix to be interviewed about the event. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of our quotes made it into the article. Now, we’re not going to argue with the claims made in that article – that freedom of speech is dangerous or that a Swarthmore student who screamed at a former victim of torture can justify herself by complaining that his discussion of his torture was a “triggering incident” for her. Instead, here are our answers to the interviewer’s questions that somehow failed to make it into print:

Who is Aboubakr? 

Hussein Aboubakr was born in 1989 to an Arab Muslim family in Cairo, Egypt. Hussein studied Jewish and Middle Eastern history and Hebrew literature at the Faculty of Arts and Oriental Studies Department at Cairo University. Persecuted and tortured by state police for his research at the Israeli Academic Center of Cairo, Hussein participated in the Egyptian revolution until he was forced to depart Egypt as a political refugee. He now lives in the United States. He is a member of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa an organization based in San Francisco.

Who made the decision to bring Aboubakr to campus and why?

Swarthmore Students for Israel decided to bring Aboubakr through Stand with Us, a pro- Israel advocacy and education organization. We believe it is important to bring in speakers with alternative viewpoints to Swarthmore and have had success with Stand with Us in the past.

How many students attended tonight’s event?

Considering how contentious of an issue this is on campus, I was disappointed at the small turnout we had. There were only seven students there, including myself.

What exactly happened at the Aboubakr event tonight? What did the students who interrupted him/insulted him/the group during the question/answer session say?

I will not write what the students who interrupted the speaker said, because I cannot directly quote them. I can, however, speak to their behavior. From the very beginning of the event, they acted in a manner that I found to be very disrespectful to the speaker. One of the students had a book open on his desk at the time that Aboubakr began speaking and clearly seemed to be still more invested in reading than listening. Relatively early in Aboubakr’s telling of his story, the students were whispering to each other under their breath, and one specifically interrupted him in the middle of his speaking. Aboubkar and a member of Stand with Us asked the student to please wait for the end before asking questions, but the student persisted. When Aboubkar was finally able to continue speaking, he did answer the question the student had interrupted with.  It quickly dissolved from discussion to screaming match when Aboubkar opened the floor for questions at the end.

How did Aboubakr react to the students?

Aboubkar clearly endures a great deal of pain each time he tells this story, and understandably so. He was visibly upset by the lewd and vulgar words that were thrown at him, but did attempt to continue to answer the “questions.” I put questions in quotation marks because I did not feel that those students who were angrily yelling at Aboubkar really cared for his answers. Despite claims that these students were interested in dialogue, the hostility that I felt signified that this may not have been entirely the case.

How did you feel about what happened?

I was very upset by what occurred at the talk, by comments made by students both towards Aboubkar and towards myself. I will speak on this a little further in the next two questions, but I was frustrated by the inability on the part of other students on this campus to acknowledge another human beings lived experience. I did not agree with everything that Aboubkar said. I felt that he made a few sweeping generalizations that were in fact potentially harmful. This does not, however, justify the behavior of the students, the attacks that occurred, or the intolerance that was displayed. I would hope that on a campus that preaches values such as acceptance and respect, something like this would not happen.

Do you think that tonight’s event is representative of the general Swarthmore intellectual climate around issues such as Israel/its neighbors, or as though this was an isolated incident?

It disheartens me to say that this is representative of the general Swarthmore intellectual climate surrounding Israel, but this was by no means the first time that I have witnessed or experienced this kind of behavior. I attended another speaking event last spring, and was again dismayed at the lack of turnout and at the attitudes of many of those who did attend. The intolerance that I have seen is something that is beyond my realm of comprehension. I very often strongly disagree with people on this campus to the point where I am emotionally affected, just as some in our audience were today. That does not mean that I would scream vulgarities at someone and deny their lived experiences. It is a clear display of intolerance that I have personally had to deal with numerous times on this campus. I make a point of listening to the other side, of reading anti-Israel literature and listening to other groups’ lectures. I do this because I feel that is my intellectual and moral responsibility to acknowledge with and grapple with the ideas of those who oppose my own beliefs. On this campus, I have not felt that this same respect has been given to me. Instead, I have been forced to deal with heavy criticism and even blatant anti-Semitism on far too many occasions.*

* To clarify, I do believe that you can criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic.

Do you feel as though constructive dialogue about Israel/its neighbors can take place on campus?

If the goals of this university are moral and intellectual excellence, then it is necessary that constructive dialogue about Israel and its neighbors take place on campus. I do not mean to change anyone’s mind, nor do I intend to force my opinions on others. My intent is simply to present the other sides of a multifaceted argument in a setting where I very much only feel that one side has been exposed. I am cautiously, and likely foolishly, optimistic that constructive dialogue is possible.

Do you/your group plan on bringing similar speakers in the future?

We plan to bring pro-Israel speakers to campus. There were likely be more speakers coming through Stand with Us, but we have other plans as well. I hesitate to say that we will bring “similar” speakers to campus only because every individual who speaks on this issue has a slightly varied opinion or experience. It is unlikely, really impossible, that we would bring another speaker to campus that is exactly like Aboubkar to campus.

Do you have further actions planned around the events of tonight?

At the moment, we are planning more speakers and events, but unless necessary we do not have anything further planned concerning Aboubkar’s lecture.

Thanks guys. I really appreciate this. We will be sure to link to the Independent piece in our web version as well.

A Reaction to Hussein Aboubakr Event

The following is an open letter to the Swarthmore community submitted by Swarthmore Students for Israel.

Today, the Swarthmore Students for Israel held an event with an invited speaker, Hussein Aboubakr. Hussein was a victim of torture (both physical and mental), repression, and hatred from his own government in Egypt. His only crime: studying Hebrew in his native country. We brought him in to speak because we believed his story was interesting and offered an important and original perspective on issues in the Middle East.

Our intention was to open a dialogue. Yet some students who attended behaved contemptuously from the very beginning. They opened textbooks and pretended to read while Hussein spoke. They talked amongst themselves. They interrupted and scoffed at him when he told the most harrowing parts of his story. As he tearfully recalled painful experiences in a military prison of being assaulted and cursed at, our peers prepared to yell at him and say that he “can’t f***ing say that.”

Understandably, Hussein reacted negatively to this rude treatment. The students who had come to interrupt now escalated. Soon our question-and-answer session degenerated into a screaming match. Instead of asking the speaker questions, these students yelled at us for bringing him to campus to spread “hatred” and claimed that his lecture “[didn’t] belong here.” One student stood up and proclaimed that he was shocked to hear such opinions at Swarthmore. We thought people attended college to hear new opinions. We expected people to disagree with him politically. What shocked us was that a survivor of sustained torture could be treated in such a way on our campus.

We should all be able to agree, at a minimum, that guests to our campus, especially those who have suffered extreme physical and mental abuse, should be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of whether we disagree with what they have to say. Alternative opinions should be listened to, not shut down. Unfortunately, those who most fervently advocate diversity seem to be the ones least tolerant of it when it is presented to them, especially in a civilized forum.

We had hoped to open up a dialogue here at Swarthmore, and the inability displayed here to do so only shows how necessary this is. We are cautiously optimistic that there may still be a space for a conversation on Israel and its neighbors here on our campus.

We as a group are committed to holding more events and bringing in more speakers, and we hope many of you will attend.


The Swarthmore Students for Israel