School Ties

Israeli divestment campaign carries on

Ian Urbina

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers: The divestment movement is "anti-Semitic."
Last fall, the topic of campus divestment from Israel stirred so much heated controversy that it seemed like it might actually boil over. National op-ed pages teemed with arguments on the issue, and rarely a month went by without a mass arrest as students protested at group sit-ins on campus.

While media attention has abated recently, the campaign continues. “We are still going strong,” says Fadi Kiblawi, one the main organizers at the University of Michigan divestment chapter. “Even though there are lots of issues to watch right now, divestment is increasing its momentum.”

Students at about 50 campuses across the country continue to petition their schools to divest themselves of stock in companies that have ties to Israel. The movement—meant as a nonviolent, grassroots and international method for pressuring an end to Israeli occupation—is modeled on successful efforts in the ’70s and ’80s to rid university portfolios of investments in companies doing business in South Africa.

But the topic is still not without its occasional flare-ups. In February, Duke University President Nan Keohane rejected a campus call to divest from companies with military ties to Israel. Students responded with a barrage of critical letters to the administration.

The divestment movement got its start in fall of 2000. On the campus of the University of California-Berkeley, one of the campaign’s first hot spots, a group called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) initiated a campaign imploring the Board of Regents to reconsider the estimated $6.4 billion that the UC system currently invests in companies that do substantial business with Israel (defined by the group as transactions worth $5 million or more annually).

Their petition states that there should be no investment in Israel until four conditions are met: full compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories; an end to Israel’s legal use of torture; a full freeze on settlements; and the application of U.N. Security Council Resolution 194, which stipulates the right of refugees to return home. To date, the group has collected more than 6,000 signatures from students.

In the Ivy League, Harvard University has been highly active in the effort. In a joint campaign with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard has drawn backing from nearly 200 students and more than 100 faculty. Their petition also features the signatures of professors at several Israeli universities.

Harvard also became one of the spots of the most pointed debate after Lawrence Summers, college president and Clinton-era treasury secretary, publicly lambasted the divestment movement as “anti-Semitic” in effect, if not in intent. But many of the campaign’s most prominent supporters, at Harvard and MIT in particular, are themselves Jewish. Sylvain Bromberger, an MIT philosopher whose family escaped capture by the Nazis, published one of the stronger defenses of those working in the divestment movement.

“They are good and courageous people, the sort of people who took great risks to save Jews during the occupation,” Bromberger wrote to Summers. “What you insinuated about them was sheer, crude calumny. You must have known that. You must know people like them. As a Jew, I found your statement to be slanderous. As a holder of a Harvard degree, I found it embarrassing.”

Harvard psychology professor Elizabeth Spelke, whose family has roots in Israel, is also a strong backer of the divestment effort. “I simply couldn’t afford to sit back any longer.”

Divestment of any sort at Harvard has always been a hard sell. As late as 1989, Harvard still held significant stock in the South African economy and put up dogged resistance that same year when Archbishop Desmond Tutu (a strong supporter of the current Israeli divestment campaign) attempted to get a seat on the Harvard Board of Overseers in order to pressure the university. Currently, Harvard has roughly $614 million invested in companies that do major business with Israel.

Aside from inflammatory accusations of anti-Semitism, current proponents of divestment face far steeper challenges than their anti-apartheid predecessors. “I was involved with the campaign to divest from South Africa; I was at Berkeley at the time,” Todd Gitlin, a ’60s radical and one-time president of Students for a Democratic Society, said in December. “The arguments against that were all tactical—no one stood up to defend the principles of apartheid. That’s one huge difference.”

The South African divestment campaign was sown on fertile soil in the United States, where the memory of the civil rights movement fed directly into outrage over apartheid’s explicitly racial caste system. The Palestinian struggle against the occupation faces a far less hospitable environment: For every divestment petition, counter-petitions have collected signatures at almost double the speed.

Despite the opposition, divestment supporters aren’t going away. In February, students at Rutgers and the University of Florida both started divestment campaigns, while the University of California and University of Michigan held rallies around the issue. “It’s a testament to the importance of the issue,” says Vincent Lloyd, leader of Princeton’s campaign. “During this time of dire and legitimate concern about Iraq, it is just amazing that the active campus effort for compelling an end to the occupation continues to grow.”

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