Israel Divestment Efforts Increasing on U.S. Campuses

Anti-Semitic comments voiced at recent UC Santa Barbara debate, Princeton undergrads voting on divestment resolution this week.

Rabbi Evan Goodman

NEW YORK – The debate went on for close to nine hours, before the student government at the University of California, Santa Barbara, narrowly voted down an Israel divestment resolution last week.

In the end, it lost by a single vote. It was the third year in a row that this particular campus in the UC system – which has more than 18,000 undergraduate students, including about 2,500 Jews – narrowly defeated divestment.

Princeton University undergrads will vote on a similar motion this week, in a referendum capping months of activity from both sides on what is usually a nonpolitical campus.

While there has been no precipitous jump in the number of divestment resolutions, such efforts are gradually rolling out from coast to coast.

They are presently being considered at the University of New Mexico; Bowdoin College in Maine; Wisconsin’s Marquette University; Ohio State University; and the University of Texas at Austin.

They have already passed at colleges including Loyola, Wesleyan, Oberlin, DePaul University, Evergreen, University of Toledo, Stanford, and the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego. The February vote at UC Davis was overturned by another campus body, which said it was not within the purview of the student government to approve such a measure.

New York University professors and students recently published an open letter and are gathering signatures for a similar effort.

At some campuses, the divestment question has crept into other areas. Molly Horwitz, a Jewish candidate running for election to Stanford University’s student government, was questioned about having dual loyalties. Horwitz reportedly scrubbed her Facebook page of evidence indicating support for Israel before she began collecting signatures for her campaign.

At UCLA, a candidate for the student council judicial board was initially disqualified from running, and accused by the student council of having a conflict of interest because of her affiliation with Hillel and a Jewish sorority.

At Princeton, the undergraduate student referendum – part of a student government election ballot open to the university’s 5,200 undergraduates this week – seeks to impact the policy of the Princeton University Investment Company (Princo), which manages a $19 billion endowment. That is the third-largest endowment of any university in the United States.

The referendum calls on Princo to withdraw money from multinational corporations “that maintain the infrastructure of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank,” are involved with Israeli and Egyptian “collective punishment of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and facilitate state repression against Palestinians by Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian Authority security forces.”

There is a high bar to meet, said the chair of the committee that functions as the endowment managers’ gatekeeper. That group, called Princeton’s Resources Committee, earlier this year rejected resolutions calling for Israel divestment. “The committee was correct to do so,” Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber told Haaretz.

Tensions about the referendum have grown in recent days on the bucolic New Jersey campus.

Kyle Dhillon. Princeton referendum an attempt to establish the consensus.

Kyle Dhillon, a junior from Atlanta who is involved with both the Princeton Committee on Palestine and Princeton Divests Coalition, said their posters around campus were repeatedly torn down last week. Table tents left in the residential dining halls also mysteriously disappeared. “Typically, we don’t have to worry about people limiting free speech here,” said Dhillon. The divestment coalition held a “teach-in” on April 8, at which Cornel West, a Princeton professor emeritus, spoke, as well as Max Blumenthal, who last year called the European Union “an accomplice to the preexisting ethnically cleansing Jewish state.”

Natasha Madorsky, a former president of J Street U at Princeton, believes the referendum is likely to pass “and not have a literal impact. Even the people who are pushing this referendum know that the likelihood of Princeton University divesting from these companies is small.

“We all see a profound need to talk about the occupation, and if this opens up that dialogue then something good has come out of it,” added Madorsky, a sophomore from Cleveland, Ohio. She noted that both anti-divestment and pro-divestment posters had been torn down.

Natasha Madorsky. The referendum won't have 'literal impact.' Photo by Wajdi Mallat

At UC Santa Barbara, more troubling than the resolution itself was what was said during the long night of debate on April 15, said sources at the college, where pro-divestment students raised their hands, en masse, in a Black Power-esque salute.

One of the UCSB’s 25 student senators talked about “the power, money and influence of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Evan Goodman, executive director of UCSB’s Hillel, the next day. “There were audible gasps in the audience” when she did, said Goodman, who was present throughout.

The student senator’s comments came two weeks after the undergraduate student senators unanimously voted in a resolution condemning anti-Semitism.

Someone else talked about Israel “forcibly sterilizing Ethiopians,” said Max Samarov, a senior researcher with StandWithUs and 2011 graduate of UCSB, who attended the vote. He said that such allegations went unchallenged during the divestment debate.

“The BDS resolution and the coarsening of campus dialogue that comes with it leads to people who are anti-Semitic coming out of the woodwork,” added Goodman.

As mentioned, pro-divestment Princeton University students have a high bar to meet before their referendum would even be formally passed onto Princo.

Only twice before has Princeton University ever applied its “selective divestiture” policy: It did so in 1987, in connection with the apartheid regime in South Africa; and in 2006, in response to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

For an issue to be brought to those who run the endowment, there must be both an indication of clear consensus on the part of the university community, and a sustained interest on the particular issue, said Marc Fleurbaey, a professor who chairs the resources committee of the Council of Princeton University Community, which acts as a gatekeeper between the campus community and the university’s board of trustees.

On the Israel divestment question, that day seems a long way off.

Eisgruber told Haaretz, “Divestment decisions are made through a deliberative process involving the trustees of the University and the Resources Committee of the Council of the Princeton University Community. Student referenda are not a part of that process and do not provide a ground for action by the University.

“Moreover, our policy allows divestment only when there is ‘a consensus on how the university should respond’ to a situation,” Eisgruber wrote in an email. “No such consensus exists about Israel and Palestine; they are the subject of fierce controversy on this campus, as they are elsewhere.”

Earlier this year, the resources committee received four petitions – one each signed by faculty and students in favor of, and opposing, Israel divestment, Fleurbaey told Haaretz.

The referendum is an attempt to establish the consensus, Dhillon said. But even that, noted Fleurbaey, represents just the undergraduate population – not the entire university community.

To be sure, even on those campuses where they have passed, divestment efforts are entirely symbolic.

But that symbolism can be impactful, said Max Weiss, an associate professor of history and Near Eastern studies at Princeton, whose faculty petition urging divestment set the stage for the student referendum. He acknowledged that the Princeton effort is unlikely to have any direct impact on the university’s investment policy.

“This inspires those who wonder if it’s advisable to raise their voice,” said Weiss, who studied at Hebrew University. “If people at other colleges say to themselves, ‘If Princeton is taking the lead on this, what are we self-styled radicals doing?’ then we’ve done something great.”

No university administration or endowment investment committee has agreed to withdraw funds from companies whose products are used in connection with the occupation. Divestment resolutions “have no practical outcomes in terms of university investment policies,” said Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism.

“They do have a divisive effect on the campus climate,” though, he told Haaretz. “We get complaints from students that there’s a tense atmosphere on campus, that they’re feeling pressured to choose sides.”

UC Santa Barbara’s Goodman said that his Hillel regularly organizes and participates in dialogue and other activities that bring together Jewish and Muslim students, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students.

“Resolutions like this don’t bring a culture of trust, they polarize the campus,” he said. “The vast majority of students involved in BDS are neither Palestinian nor Muslim. That group of people, which doesn’t have a vested interest in our communities working together but views Western governments and many corporations as enemies, and wants to portray Israel as a colonialist outpost of Western civilization, make it very difficult for any of us who want to work together and bring about peace on the campus and a peaceful two-state solution.”

“They want to wear people down,” added Goodman. “It’s sad and it’s tiring, and yet this is only the beginning of what they want to do.”