Israeli divestment campaign
by lan Urbina
In These Times magazine,
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).
The 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
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
"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,
l 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
"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."