Divest from Death

Resisting the Complexes of Empire

Image by Hany Osman.

As we enter the eighth month of Israel’s genocidal campaign against Palestinians, the flow of weapons to Israel continues from the United States, Germany, Canada, Italy, Australia, and other Western countries. Even as some governments claim to have halted transfers or to not be sending weapons at all, they continue to provide licences or parts and components that are instrumental to the continuing onslaught. As people are now being pulled from the rubble in Rafah, in a strip of land already known as the world’s “largest open-air prison,” in a country and people bordered and confined by a violent settler colonial state, the relationships between the profiteers of the military-industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, and the border industrial complex come starkly into focus. And in the demands of the student encampments, the connections of these structures of state violence to universities becomes clear as well.

Encampment demands

In April 2024, starting at Columbia University and spread across the country and then the world, students set up encampments protesting the genocide of Palestinians. The goal of each encampment was to raise awareness of and disrupt the role that their institutions have in supporting or enabling Israel’s genocide of Palestinians, including through academic partnerships with Israeli universities or the provision of cultural, social, financial, or material support to Israel’s occupation and genocide.

One of the key demands of the encampments was that their universities divest from companies that are facilitating the occupation and genocide. Many of these companies are weapon manufacturers or technology firms whose products are actively being used to kill, injure, displace, and detain Palestinians, and to destroy Palestine.

While Israel does produce some of its weapons domestically, it is largely reliant on the import of weapon systems, parts, and components from Western companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, Leonardo, L3 Harris, Rheinmetall, Thales, and many more. (SIRPI’s top 100 arms manufacturers provides a useful list.) In addition, Israel’s main weapon company, Elbit Systems, has subsidiary factories around the world, including in the United States and United Kingdom.

In short, Israel’s genocide of Palestinians would not be possible without the material support from Western companies. Most of Israel’s arms imports—about 69 percent—come from the United States. Germany supplies most of the rest, with Australia, Canada, France, Italy, and others providing parts and components essential to weapons Israel is using.

Militarization of education

So what do these companies, and their provision of weapons to Israel, have to do with universities? As counterintuitive as it might seem, companies that make bombs and guns have long had their hooks in higher education in the United States and around the world. While universities advertise their ability to “prepare tomorrow’s leaders” and offer an image of pursuing justice and knowledge for the betterment of the world, many are deeply intertwined with the global military-industrial complex (MIC), as well as with the US prison industrial complex and border industrial complex.

There are many ways in which universities are entangled with these complexes of death, detention, and destruction. Some universities have directly invested their endowments and other funds into weapon contractors or technology firms that are profiting from Israel’s genocide of Palestinians, as well as from the broader global war machine. Some universities have student-to-internship-to-job pipelines that feed graduates directly into employment with top weapon companies or government weapon labs. Sometimes the labs create educational programs to service their needs; sometimes weapon contractors offer student programs to “catapult their careers”. Some schools receive funding and endowments from the MIC, other companies directly finance new research centres—and influence what gets researched there.

While many of the US student encampment demands have focused on divestment of university funds from weapon companies, it’s important to understand these other types of relationships between the MIC and universities. The militarization of academia is not only about university investments in weapon companies, or company investments in universities, but also the ways in which the US military itself is shaping higher education across the country.

The US military is directly involved in funding research, and increasingly in conducting the research itself alongside university students and faculty. There are currently fifteen US universities with Pentagon-funded “University Affiliated Research Centers,” including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Texas at Austin, and Johns Hopkins University. Nearly 50 universities are involved in the research and design of nuclear weapons, from the University of New Mexico to Kansas State. Some universities are even part of the “management teams” of nuclear weapon labs.

As Michael Klare notes, the US military is not just providing funding for weapon-related research and development, but is also establishing “operating units” at universities. Klare highlights the Air Force-MIT partnership on artificial intelligence (AI), which involves military personnel being “embedded” in teams alongside faculty and students. At Carnegie Mellon, the US Army set up an AI Task Force, which in 2020 produced its first class of “Army AI Scholars”. The Army Future Command set up its headquarters at the University of Texas at Austin, rather than an Army base, where it operates campus laboratories and created a research center for robotics. Over at Texas A&M, the Command is building a 2000 acre “Innvoation Proving Ground” to test autonomous weapon systems under “battlefield-like conditions”.

These latter cases highlight another insidious aspect of the MIC-university relationship. Just as the MIC tentacles have been tightening their grip on institutes of higher learning across the West, other companies beyond the traditional war profiteers are also getting in the game. While Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and others of their ilk have a lead on making industrious investments in the next generation of people to build their bombs, technology firms are increasingly entangling themselves with the MIC and with universities.

As Brown University’s Costs of War project reports, big tech companies, venture capital firms, and private equity companies are receiving multi-billion dollar contracts from the Pentagon, while smaller tech start-ups are also increasingly on the take. Tech Inquiry, which tracks many of these contracts, has found that three of the world’s biggest tech corporations were awarded approximately $28 billion in Pentagon dollars from 2018 to 2022, including Microsoft, Amazon, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

This phenomenon of the military-industrial-education complex, it should be noted, is not limited to the United States. MIC-university partnerships are also present in other countries that have war profiteering as part of their economies. The past few years in Australia, for example, has seen a massive expansion of weapon industry collaborations with universities. The new AUKUS military alliance is pushing this military take-over of higher education even further and faster. Student encampments at Australian universities have been building on ongoing organizing for divestment from military industries, for example with the University of Melbourne’s Weapons Off Campus Campaign.

In the United Kingdom, BAE Systems has established “working relationships” with five universities. Some of the student encampments have focused on cutting ties with the company, which partially manufacturers F-35 fighter jets that are being used by Israel. Universities in Italy have research agreements with Israeli universities, while Italian weapon company Leonardo has agreements with Israel to “foster innovation”. The list goes on.

All of these investments and embedded partnerships make universities a critical node for divestment efforts. While at some universities divestment is about removing endowment funds from weapon companies or tech firms, divestment is more broadly, and fundamentally, about disrupting and dismantling the multitude of relationships between governments, militaries, and universities—and the money that sustains these relationships.

There is a lot of money at stake. Global military spending, as of 2023, is $2443 billion a year. This is the highest it’s ever been, and is continously on the rise. At $916 billion, the United States accounts for 37 percent of this spending—which is more than the next top ten spenders combined, including China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Germany, Ukraine, France, and Japan.

More than half of US military spending goes to thousands of private companies that build weapons and provide services to the military. Globally, the Stockholm Institute for International Peace Research reports that “revenues from sales of arms and military services by the 100 largest companies in the industry totalled $597 billion in 2022.” Meanwhile, “Outstanding orders and a surge in new contracts suggest that global arms revenues could rise significantly in the next few years.”

Killing and destroying people and the planet is one of the most lucrative industies on Earth—if you’re a CEO or shareholder of one of these companies, or a political leader or university administrator lining your pockets. If you’re someone on the receiving end of these companies “products,” or if your basic social services, access to food, housing, education, and overall care and well being are being stripped to nothing so that more and more money can be forked over to weapon contractors—then your experience of the MIC is much different.

How divestment works

Challenging the flow of money, as well as the broader political and cultural investments in companies producing mass death and suffering, makes divestment essential as a tactic and a strategy for disrupting the war machine. And given the complicity of many Western universities in providing states with tools of imperialism and oppression, they are important node in the struggle for peace and justice.

As William D. Hartung and Nick Cleveland-Stout wrote, student protests to get universities to divest from harmful corporations has a long history. From encampments and civil disobedience for divestment from companies supporting South Africa’s apartheid government to more recent campaigns for divestment from fossil fuel companies, students have rich tradition of standing up—and camping out—to move their institutions’ money away from those profiting from violence and destruction. Student organizing was also essential to the suspension of university of ties with the Pentagon in the 1960s and 70s during the Vietnam War. (These suspensions have not held, which is at the heart of the current divestment demands.)

Divestment is about withdrawing financial and therefore moral support, or “social licence,” from a company profiting from violence or harm. In the context of the student encampment demands, divestment can consist of many different actions, including adopting an investment policy with a commitment to remove the institution’s funds from companies that are sending weapons, parts, components, and other military and surveillance equipment to Israel. These policies can lead to the sale of direct investments in stocks or bonds of companies profiting from the genocide, and to the creation of a process to review investments to make sure they are aligned with the policy and to make the institution’s investments transparent and subject to public scrutiny.

As noted above, divestment also means severing ties with the MIC companies and government agencies that are militarizing universities. Divestment can be more that moving the money—it can also be about ending partnerships, stopping the influence of corporations over research, and preventing militaries from embedding soldiers into academic departments.

But for many universities, divesting funds from weapon companies is one of the most straightforward and effective means to undermine Israel’s project of genocide. And this kind of divestment is part of the much broader Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that has long worked to end international support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine and oppression of Palestinians.

Backlash against BDS

The BDS movement, formally launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society groups, calls on people and organizations from around the world “to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era,” and to “pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel.” BDS urges boycott of Israeli sporting, cultural, and academic institutions, Israeli and international companies involved in human rights violations and settlement building in Palestine, suspending Israel’s membership in intenational forums, and more. BDS maintains tools and resources several different campaigns targeting different sectors of the Israeli economy and other corporations profitting from abuse of Palestinians.

Due to the profound impact that BDS initiatives can and have had on changing public opinion and on impact economic bottom lines for companies, the movement has faced intense backlash from Western governments.

In July 2019, for example, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing the global BDS movement. While some state courts have blocked laws outlawing BDS as unconstitutional, others have passed legislation to prohibit the BDS movement.

In the wake of the 7 October 2023 attacks and Israel’s genocidal actions against Palestinians, the BDS movement has become even more vocal and widespread, as has opposition to it. The crackdown against any pro-Palestine engagement across the United States, and in Canada and Europe, has been severe. Academics have lost their jobs, employees have been sanctioned, keffiyehs and flags have been banned, mosques have been put under surveillance. Anyone protesting genocide and war crimes has been labelled pro-Hamas and antisemetic.

Leaning into the spirit of this legislative and social backlash against the BDS movement, many university administrators and local politicians sent in cops to crush and clear the student encampments and anyone supporting them. More than anything else, the violent repression of students engaging in nonviolent protest shows exactly how those profiting from genocide and war can count on the police to protect their interests.

The MIC, the PIC, and the BIC

At many of the encampments, police violently arrested students, threw professors to the ground, and falsely charged people with assaulting police officers or resisting arrest. None of this is an aberration—in a capitalist system that relies on war profiteering to sustain itself, this is what police are for.

Police across the Western world and especially in the United States can be understood as an integral part of the military-industrial complex and the US foreign policy pursuit of full spectrum dominance. This policy objective, which aims to ensure that the US can deploy violence anywhere in the world at any time, acting as the world’s police force, is part of US fantasies of “manifest destiny” on a global scale. And full spectrum dominance and manifest destiny are directly tied to the history and current forms of policing within the United States, of both citizens and immigrants.

Many police forces consume between 30–60 percent of each US city’s budget. The United States as a whole spends more than $118 billion annually on policing—making US policing the third largest military in the world.

Even still, these figures don’t include the money spent on another kind of police force in the US—the kind that is deployed to “enforce the border” and arrest and detain migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. The Department of Homeland Security’s budget for FY2025 is $107.9 billion. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the lynchpins of the US border industrial complex (BIC), are designated to together receive $25.9 billion of that budget.

Beyond the obscene amounts of funding, police forces, ICE agents, and Border Patrol officers are also incredibly militarized. This is in part facilitated by the 1122 program that allows police forces to purchase military equipment with taxpayer money at a discounted rate, while the 1033 program allows for transfer of “excessive” equipment from military to police.

Most recently immortalized in the images of the NYPD Army marching down the streets of New York City to attack students at Columbia University, these programs also generated the battle tanks deployed in the streets of Ferguson 2014 and the brutal repression of the Standing Rock encampments in 2016. For the latter, police collaborated at federal, state, and local levels, and with private security forces to supress the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The militarization of police is also the backbone of the proliferating efforts to build “cop cities” across the United States. A clear police response to the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020, cop cities are about training police to fight civilians in city streets using military equipment. The facilities and relationships envisioned by those designing cop cities draws upon the experiences of the US military training police and military forces in other countries, often on Indigenous and colonized lands. It also builds on the relationship that US police forces already have with the Israel Defence Forces, in what Jewish Voice for Peace has long described as an “exchange of worst practices.”

In Atlanta, organizers have been working hard for years to prevent the construction of Cop City. The project is funded by taxpayers but also private corporations that clearly see the police as a necessary instrument to protect their profits in an increasing destabilized and unequal world. Cop City is about repression in the dystopia that those at the top of the economic food chain are digging us deeper into every day. The construction of a playground for cops to learn how to be effective in their brutal suppression of protest mirrors what US militarism abroad and border enforcement does—it’s about repression of people reacting to climate change, conflict, capitalism, repression of the many who are suffering while ensuring protection for extraction and capital accumulation by the few who are prospering.

And of course, all this policing leads to mass incarceration—because where do you put all those people protesting the cruelty and violence of the state? Prison abolitionists have long recognised the similarities between the MIC and prison industrial complex (PIC). As Critical Resistance decribes, the PIC entails the structures of surveillance, policing, and imprisonment that governments use as solutions to economic, social, and political problems. Today, the amount of money spent on incarceration in the United States is officially about $81 billion. But there are other hidden costs, leading the Prison Policy Initiative to calculate that the annual total cost of incarceration is about $182 billion. And just a police and border agents target Black and Brown people, those incarcerated in the United States are disproportinately Black, Latinx, and Native.

It’s also worth noting that many private companies have their hooks in the PIC and BIC as they do in the MIC. G4 Security Solutions, as just one example, has contracts with Israeli prisons in the West Bank, South African prisons, and Guantánamo Bay; provides transportation for ICE; and guards nuclear weapon and nuclear power facilities throughout the United States—where it has been implicated in security breaches and lapses. As noted in an earlier CounterPunch article, Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest military contractor, has been a key player in the US border industrial complex, building many of the surveillance towers along the US-Mexico border. Surveillance technologies and patrol vehicles that are tested in Gaza are later deployed along the border—as an Israeli brigadier general said in 2012, Gaza is “a great laboratory” for tech development.

These companies, and the broader field of MIC, PIC, and BIC actors, are not ashamed of their embroilment in all this suffering. In fact, they celebrate it. While the student encampments were being crushed around the country, the MIC gathered for the first-ever “AI Expo for National Competitiveness,” organized by Google’s former CEO and sponsored by the nefarious company Palantir. Featuring traditional MIC stalwarts like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the convention also brought in big and boutique technology firms looking to make a buck from war crimes and genocides. Caroline Haskins’ article for The Guardian is a must-read for anyone wondering what the atmosphere is like in a room containing most of the US war profiteers. Her answer is, gleeful.

Participants described peace activists as war activists and student organizers as “infections”. They celebrated the emerging use of artificial intelligence in weapon systems and military operations, eager for new ways to deploy the tools their companies have created to kill, incarcerate, and control human beings.

A few weeks later, the Border Security Expo held its annual gathering in El Paso, Texas. This year marks the centennial of the Border Patrol. Journalist and academic Todd Miller reported on the new gadgets on display at the expo, from robotic dogs to patrol vehicles to “smart walls” to rapid DNA services. Border Patrol chief Jason Owens described these products as “force multipliers” and said that the agency “needs more stuff”.

Thus, as the MIC, BIC, and PIC expand and integrate, and as global military pending increases, divestment from and dismantlement of these systems becomes ever more crucical.

Resisting the complexes of empire

The student encampments and the repression of them by police are helping more and more people draw connections among these different structures of state violence. People are increasingly commenting on how strange it is that their universities invest in weapons. Others are noting that the main role of police seems to be to protect power and profits, not people. Several of the encampments drew direct connections between Israel’s genocide of Palestinians, the collaborations between US and Israeli police and military forces, and the construction of Cop City. The encampment at Emory University in Atlanta demanded divestment both from Israeli apartheid and Cop City, while the Cal Poly Humboldt encampment honoured Tortuguita, the forest defender murdered by Georgia State Police for trying to prevent the construction of Cop City. Last year, Stop Cop City organizers issued a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian resistance.

There is also a clear contrast between the lack of response from the Uvalde police force in its failure to stop a mass shooting in Texas two years ago—leading to the deaths of 19 students and two teachers—and the rapid, overwhelming show of force from police departments around the country in response to the nonviolent student encampments. There are also similarities between the Uvalde police’s inaction and the cops who stood by in Los Angeles as people supporting Israel’s genocide violently attacked the UCLA encampment.

The police chief in LA has been reassigned while the city of Uvalde reached a $2 million settlement with the families that includes a commitment to “overhaul” its police force. But overhauling the police or reassigning individual officers, as abolitionists have long argued, is not sufficient. Reforming the MIC, BIC, and PIC all amount to the same thing: continued investment in these structures of violence at the expensive of meeting people’s real needs. The only meaningful action is divestment and dismantlement. The encampments, and broader movement activism and organizing, is starting to have an impact in this direction.

Divestment successes

Drawing power from the larger BDS movement, as well as the International Court of Justice’s finding South Africa’s charge of genocide plausible and International Criminal Court prosecutors announcing that they are seeking arrest warrants for Israel’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, the demands for divestment from companies facilitating Israel’s genocide of Palestinians has gained serious traction over the past few months. For example:

* Norway’s second largest asset manager, Storebrand, divested holdings in IBM worth $141 million in response to IBM’s supply of a biometric database to Israel used to implement apartheid and to discriminate against and segregate Palestinians.

* The University of Copenhagen divested from portfolios including Airbnb, Booking.com, and eDreams ODIGEO.

* Students at Trinity College in Dublin negotiated an agreement with the university to divest from Israeli companies.

* Brown University agreed to hold a vote on divestment from companies that support Israel.

* Evergreen State College agreed to publicly call for a ceasefire and form a divestment task force.

* Northwestern University agreed to disclose its investments and increase support for Palestinian students and faculty on campus.

Some successes have been more mitigated. Princeton University agreed to formally hear divestment requests, but refused to “accommodate” requests for severing ties from the US military, academic boycotts of Israel, ceasefire statements, or complete amnesty for arrested protestors. Rutgers University agreed to eight out of ten demands, including accepting displaced students from Gaza, but refused to divest from companies facilitating the genocide or end its partnership with Tel Aviv University.

To be even more effective, work for divestment must continue—but it should do so in coordination with those working on other approaches to ending the genocide, especially work for arms embargoes.

How divestment relates to an arms embargo

The Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Coordinating Committee (PAACC), which includes the BDS movement and many other organizations, has called on states to impose a two-way arms embargo on Israel. This reflects the calls from the open letter prepared by Al-Haq, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in November 2023, which was signed by hundreds of organizations. It is also matched by demands of groups such as the Palestinian Youth Movement, Dissenters, Palestine Action, Workers for a Free Palestine, Labour Against the Arms Trade, World BEYOND War Canada, and many others.

Around the world, many activists have been and continue to take direct action to end arms transfers to and from Israel. Some have organized letter writing campaigns and petitions to government officials, others have engaged in blockading weapon production factories or ports through which weapons are being shipped to Israel. Workers across the world have responded to a call from Palestinian trade unions to shutdown sections of the arms industry involved in sending weapons to Israel.

Palestinians and human rights groups have sued the Biden administration for failure to prevent genocide and to seek an emergency order to stop military and diplomatic support to Israel. The case was heard in federal court on 26 January. While the judge ruled this case was out of his jurisdiction, he also concluded that Israel is plausibly committing genocide and implored the Biden administration to end its support to Israel.

At the People’s Conference for Palestine, held in Detroit from 24–26 May 2024, the Palestinian Youth Movement launched a new campaign focusing on the shipment of weapons to Israel. Mask Off Maersk aims to expose and end the role of the Danish shipping and logistics company Maersk in providing weapons to fuel Israel’s genocide. By going after Maersk, organizers intend to disrupt the flow of weapons from all countries and companies at once.

Divestment has a direct relationship to these efforts to end the global arms trade with Israel. Ending investments in weapon companies, and severing university relationships with these companies and with militaries, are important ways to end economic support and undermine social licence for the arms industry, the development of new technologies of violence, and their provision in particular, in this moment, to a country committing genocide and countless atrocities.

Resources for divestment action

Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the horror, it is urgent for folks to take direct action for divestment, disrupting the arms trade, and dismantling the war machine, in whichever ways are possible for them. The following are just a few of the many tools to help with divestment research and action.

Investigate: A search tool from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) for investigating your investments in companies involved in various forms of state violence, including war, prisons, immigration detention and surveillance, and border enforcement. The AFSC also maintains a list of companies profiting from the genocide in Palestine and tools for divesting from these companies.

Who Profits: An independent research center dedicated to exposing the role of the private sector in the Israeli occupation economy.

Divest From The War Machine: World Beyond War features selected divestment campaigns and coalitions and offers model divestment tools.

Dissenters: A student and youth led campaign to get US universities and colleges to divest from the top five companies profiting from war.

Don’t Bank on the Bomb: Many of the same companies involved in providing conventional weapons to Israel are also involved in building nuclear weapons and profiting from the modernization of weapons of mass destruction. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has information about the companies and financial institutions involved in global nuclear terror and has helpful information and campaign tools for nuclear divestment.

Schools of Mass Destruction: ICAN also has information about the relationships between some US universities and the nuclear weapon industrial complex, and tools for ending these entanglements.

Weapons Off Campus Campaign: Staff and students at the University of Melbourne have developed tools and resources for those working to end any relationship between the university and companies that are involved in producing, researching, or supplying weapons, parts, and components.

Ray Acheson (they/them) is Director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). They provide analysis and advocacy at the United Nations and other international forums on matters of disarmament and demilitarization. Ray served on the steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban nuclear weapons, and is also involved in organizing against autonomous weapons, the arms trade, war and militarism, the carceral system, and more. They are author of Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and Abolishing State Violence: A World Beyond Bombs, Borders, and Cages (Haymarket Books, 2022).

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