By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff
Student activists at Hampshire College are hailing a divestment decision by the board of trustees that they say makes the college the first in the country to break financial ties with companies specifically because they do business with Israel. But the college strenuously denies the move was politically motivated.
The campus group at the Amherst school, Students for Justice in Palestine, said it had pressured the board to divest from six companies because of human rights concerns in the Palestinian territories. The group said it urged trustees to sell off holdings in a mutual fund run by State Street Global Advisors that invests in companies that "provide the Israeli military with equipment and services in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza."
But in a statement released today, university officials said the decision to divest from the fund was made "without reference to any country or political movement."
Instead, trustees concluded that the fund held stocks in more than 200 companies engaged in business practices that violated the college’s policy on "socially responsible investments." These violations included unfair labor practices, environmental abuse, military weapons manufacturing, and unsafe workplace settings, trustees said.
Jay Cassano, a spokesman for the campus group, said more than 800 students, professors, and alumni signed a petition calling for the divestment, which was presented to trustees.
"The university has taken a critical first step in ending its complicity with and profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory," Cassano said. "This was a direct result of student pressure."
University officials acknowledged they reviewed the fund at students' request, but said the divestment decision "expressly did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country."
The six companies that formed the basis of the student group's complaints were: Caterpillar, United Technologies, General Electric, ITT Corporation, Motorola, and Terex.
Sigmund Roos, chairman of the board of trustees, said in a phone interview that while the board reviewed the fund's investments it never reviewed the group's petition, which accuses Israel of implementing "apartheid policies" against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We never took it up," he said. "Students know that."
Roos said he was disappointed that students had portrayed the board's decision as a protest of Israeli policy. The fund represented about one-quarter of the college's investments.
In 1977, the left-leaning Hampshire became the first college in the nation to divest its South African holdings.
With their recent efforts, the students join a broad movement on college campuses protesting Israeli policy toward Palestinians and calling for divestment. Colleges have strongly resisted the idea, and activists' equation of Israeli policy with apartheid has drawn sharp criticism.