Around the campus of the University of South Florida in Tampa, students, staff and visitors are reminded that it is an institution that promotes and exemplifies human rights.
The words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, for example, are inscribed on a building: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." In other places, the campus community is told it has an obligation to "respect the dignity and intrinsic value of all persons."
As noble as those words are, members of Students for Justice in Palestine, SJP, are convinced that USF's administration and Student Government Association aren't living up to the university's noble human rights ideals and values.
Omar Erchid, public relations officer for SJP, told me that the organization wants the USF Foundation, which manages the school's $391 million endowment, "to stop investing in U.S. companies notorious for profiteering from human rights violations in Palestine."
A short list of these U.S. companies includes Hewlett-Packard, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Volvo, Boeing, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Motorola Solutions and Caterpillar. SJP also wants USF to boycott and sanction any enterprise that enables oppression.
"The goal of SJP is to raise awareness for the plight of the Palestinians and how we, as students, can directly make a difference," Erchid said. "We believe that our mission as students living in a free democracy is to promote the cause of justice and speak out against oppression. More and more people are standing up against Israel's injustices as its occupation and expansionism in Palestine continue to intensify.
"Now, more than ever, the movement for Palestinian rights is growing all over the world, and in particular, on college campuses. SJP has become a fast-growing network of campus organizations, representing chapters all over the United States from San Francisco to New York."
During its founding in 2010, SJP leaders, all American citizens, adopted the nonviolent approach of King and Gandhi to challenge the accepted Israeli narrative about its subjugation of Palestinians.
I asked Erchid to explain why SJP has been able to gain such strong support among students.
"We helped students understand what an endowment is and how the money is invested," Erchid said. "We informed students that the $391 million endowment does not have any policy that ensures ethical investment. We helped them understand how our university's investments were hardly transparent."
Last year, when SJP asked the Student Government Association to draft a resolution expressing support for boycotting and divesting from corporations that violated Palestinian human rights, the SJP was told that if it delivered a petition with at least 1,540 signatures supporting its objectives, the SGA would put the issue on the ballot for a student vote. The signatures were obtained, but the day before the referendum a USF official advised student government to take it off the ballot and cited potential legal concerns. The referendum remained on the ballot, but days after the election the student body president emailed the student body to apologize and said the referendum wouldn't be recorded as an official SGA referendum.
This year, SJP bypassed student government and collected 10,200 signatures on a petition requesting that the foundation divest. It will present those signatures at a meeting this week with the USF Foundation.
"When students spoke with 10,000 signatures, it shows how serious students are about revising our university's endowment policies,'' Erchid said. "The Israel-Palestine question should not be dismissed. SJP at USF works towards raising awareness with the hopes of bringing about a peaceful end to the occupation with equal rights for both Palestinians and Israelis living side by side."