Campus Collision on Israel
Campaign for Divestiture of Investments
By Michael A. Fletcher Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, October
12, 2002; Page A01
Stirs Debate on Bias,
Students and faculty at a growing number of universities are joining a
fledgling movement to pressure schools into selling their holdings in
companies that do business in Israel, prompting a counter-campaign among
Jewish groups that consider the effort part of a creeping tide of
anti-Semitism on campus.
The divestiture drive is designed as a way to protest Israeli treatment
of Palestinians, but Jews and others say that by adopting tactics used
to oppose apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s, the movement not so subtly
paints the Israeli government as racist and oppressive.
"What this movement does is compare Israel to South Africa. That is
hideous," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the
Anti-Defamation League. "There is a greater tolerance on the college
campus than elsewhere for expressions of anti-Semitism."
Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, speaking at a
university prayer address last month, warned of an "upturn in
anti-Semitism" on campus and across the globe. "Serious and thoughtful
people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their
effect if not their intent," Summers said, offering the growing Israel
divestiture movement as a prime example.
This week the American Jewish Committee published a statement in the New
York Times decrying what it called the increasing number of incidents in
which Jewish students faced intimidation on campus for vocally
"In the past few months, students who are Jewish or supporters of Israel
-- Zionists -- have received death threats and threats of violence,"
read the letter, which was signed by 309 college presidents. "Property
connected to Jewish organizations has been defaced or destroyed. Posters
and websites displaying libelous information or images have been widely
circulated, creating an atmosphere of intimidation."
Supporters of the divestiture movement bristle at the suggestion that
their campaign contributes to an atmosphere of anti-Semitism on campus,
saying the charge not only slanders them but also stifles a crucial
debate about Israeli policy toward Palestinians.
"This charge of anti-Semitism is utter nonsense. It is really a form of
paranoia to deflect attention away from Israeli human rights abuses and
war crimes," said Edward Said, a Columbia University English professor
who helped launch a divestiture campaign at the school. "Israel has been
in occupation of Palestinian territory for 35 years. . . . In light of
that, a divestment campaign modeled on the campaign in South Africa
seems to be the mildest and most decorous of responses."
Arab American activists said that incidents of taunting and other
harassment of Jews pale in comparison to the wave of anti-Muslim
incidents -- and suspicion -- that has swept campuses since last year's
terrorist attacks in the United States. Moreover, they say, criticism of
Israel, particularly amid the free flow of ideas that is characteristic
of most college campuses, does not equate to anti-Semitism.
"It is perfectly scandalous that the American Jewish Committee would
organize a petition about harassment of students on campus regarding
Middle East issues which only mentions Jewish students as victims," said
Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab
Anti-Discrimination Committee. "What you're looking at is a coordinated,
systematic campaign to delegitimize criticism of Israel on American
Some 400 activists from 90 campuses around the country are converging on
the University of Michigan for the Second National Student Conference on
the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, a three-day meeting that begins
today and is aimed at expanding the Israel divestiture movement
"We plan to brainstorm on ways to spread our message," said Fadi
Kiblawi, a Kuwaiti-born senior who grew up in St. Louis and is the lead
organizer of the conference. "If you look at a map of the occupied
territories, it looks like apartheid South Africa. Palestinians can't
travel from one place to another without heavy restrictions. And all the
laws they face are predicated on the fact that they are not the correct
The divestiture conference has touched off an emotional debate on the
Ann Arbor campus, where late last month anti-Semitic e-mails were sent
to students and faculty. The message was packaged as a conference
invitation, but investigators have determined that it was not sent from
the Michigan campus or by the student group that organized the
A Jewish student group filed a lawsuit earlier this week in an
unsuccessful effort to block the event. Several hundred students, some
waving Israeli flags and wearing T-shirts emblazoned "Wherever We Stand,
We Stand With Israel," rallied Thursday in opposition to the conference.
A similar demonstration is scheduled for tomorrow.
"It is very clear to everyone that Israel is not an apartheid state and
divestment is a ploy to get people to attempt to destroy Israel from an
economic standpoint," said Rachel Roth, a University of Michigan
sophomore who helped organize the Thursday rally. "These are just
fallacious claims being made about Israel."
The divestiture campaign was ignited by a 2000 speech by University of
Illinois law professor Francis A. Boyle, who said the conditions of
Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied territories could be changed by
a divestiture movement similar to the one that crippled the economy of
apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, leading the government to abandon
the racist policy.
"It is clear to me we have an apartheid practice being inflicted on the
Palestinians," said Boyle, who served as an unpaid legal adviser to the
Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace talks between 1991 and
1993. "If the situation is the same as it was in South Africa, the
remedy should be the same as well."
Opponents argue that with its democratic government and multiethnic
population, Israel is by far the most open society in the Middle East
and should not be compared to South Africa.
Still, the divestiture strategy has been endorsed by the likes of Nobel
Prize winner Desmond Tutu. Students and faculty at the University of
California at Berkeley were among the first to join the campaign last
spring. Now the effort is gaining support at many of the nation's most
prestigious universities, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton and
In all, Boyle estimates, the campaign is in various stages of
development on about 40 campuses, but so far no schools have moved to
shed their holdings in firms that do business in Israel.
As the campaign has spread, so, too, has opposition to it. Nearly 6,000
students and faculty have signed petitions against the movement at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. Thousands of others
have signed a similar petition at Berkeley.
Meanwhile, a pro-Israeli think tank last month launched a Web site,
Campus Watch, that critiques how Middle Eastern studies are taught at
U.S. colleges and universities. Among other things, the site features
information on professors it says have offered distorted views of trends
in the Middle East or have made anti-Semitic remarks in class.
"We think there is a problem on campus when it comes to Middle East
studies, and we see consequences flowing from this," said Daniel Pipes,
director of Middle East Forum, which runs the site. "We are also
concerned about the focus on Israel and hostility toward Israel, which
would feed into the divestment movement."
The work of Campus Watch has angered many professors and others
sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, who see it as another vehicle for
quelling debate about Israeli policy.
Richard A. Falk, a Princeton University professor who supports the
divestiture campaign, said criticism of the effort as anti-Semitic
"makes people hesitant to express their real beliefs, because they feel
they will be unintentionally misunderstood or deliberately
misunderstood. That has an extremely chilling effect on people's
willingness to express their views."
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