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University Divestment, its Support and Opposition

By Will Youmans
Palestine Chronicle
6 August 2002

Harvard Law School professor and member of the all-star O.J. Simpson defense team Alan Dershowitz told a journalist from the Financial Times that he would commit himself to the destruction of any university that divests from Israel.

In February of 2002, a national conference centered on divestment as a strategy for pro-Palestinian campus activism convened in Berkeley, California. Over 450 participants discussed focusing on the goal of ending their respective universities' financial connections to Israel by divesting or disinvesting from Israel and corporations that do significant business with Israel. Groups from twenty-two universities signed on to a final document.

Since then, a combined group at Harvard and M.I.T. started a petition calling for divestment. It was initiated independent of the Berkeley conference. 124 faculty members signed on so far. They drew the petition's language from a pro-divestment statement 40 professors and 300 students at Princeton published. University of California faculty established an almost identical petition that garnered 192 signatures within two months.

Despite cold receptions from the universities petitioned, pro-Israeli activists are growing increasingly alarmed. To borrow the words of an Ann Arbor, they are "going nuts."

After the editorial board of the student newspaper at the University of California, Los Angeles published an editorial calling for divestment from Israel, US Congressman Henry Waxman condemned it in a letter to the editor. It is hard to imagine a member of Congress regularly reading the weekly summer edition of his college rag, so one can be sure he was put up to it.

The pro-Israeli advocates are pulling out some heavy hitters for this. One of the leading opponents of divestiture is Steven Spiegel, a former aid to Bill Clinton on Middle East Affairs. Harvard Law School professor and member of the all-star O.J. Simpson defense team Alan Dershowitz told a journalist from the Financial Times that he would commit himself to the destruction of any university that divests from Israel. The Anti-Defamation League even took a break from skinhead-hunting to issue a press release urging the University of California to reject calls for divestment.

The involvement of such prominent players in combating a campus movement indicates its potential potency. Here is a campaign with a clear, logical precedence: universities divested from South Africa because it as an Apartheid state. Thus, all pro-Palestinian activists need to do is prove that Israel is an Apartheid state, and the same path should, in the logical sense, follow. One has an easy argument to make, and simplicity is what strong movements need.

The divestment strategy is based in universal ideals, such as equality under the law, and other principles of secular democracy. There is no religious or nationalist basis for this claim, so it attracts a diverse array of people, and relies on the legal-moral tenor of American institutions in a way that most pro-Palestinian language does not. The result: it is taking off and Zionists are scurrying to combat it.

They are organizing counter-petitions and lobbying the administration to reject divestment. Pro-Israeli organizations are taking Jewish students to Israeli for activism training, sending student newspaper editors for tours of Israel, and mobilizing the Jewish community's resources to help them.

On the other hand, Zionists on campus are becoming more inherently reactionary and visibly defensive while, for the first time, pro-Palestinian campus activists are on the offensive. By forcing open a debate and making a global issue a local one, proponents of divestment are building dynamic venues for education. Many consider this more important than divestment itself. The more vigilant the reaction, the more intense and public the debate. That is just what pro-Palestinian activists need.

Either way, the divestment strategy is an amazing improvement over the nebulous educational efforts of the past. This is a measurable and tangible campaign that energizes people. Just trying to educate a campus is inviting frustration because progress is immeasurable and there is no attainable final objective. Divestment is something to work for, and the dialectic relationship a campaign has with the administration can fuel it.

For this reason, the primary target in a divestment campaign is not the pro-Israeli lobby or its activists. The opposition in all of this really is the administration. What they want more than anything else is for proponents of divestment to get caught in a squabble with supporters of Israel. All appeals, arguments, and organized pressure should be placed on the University's decision-makers. That will put Zionists in the position of attacking. They will appear as the "anti-" group, existing only to block a student initiative. Proponents of divestment will have successfully set the terms of the debate with the following question: Is Israel an Apartheid state?

Anyone interested in getting involved with divestment efforts should attend the Second National Student Conference on the Palestine Solidarity Movement at the University of Michigan during October 12-14, 2002.

Will Youmans is with the Students for Justice in Palestine, and a student at UC-Berkeley's Boalt School of Law