This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Jewish Week on November 1, 2002.
Not two months into the fall semester, the divestiture campaign is in full swing on college campuses from Cambridge to San Francisco. Anti-Israel forces recently held a national divestment conference at the University of Michigan, garnering additional attention to their cause while encouraging the some 400 students in attendance to urge their respective colleges and universities to stop investing in businesses with financial ties to Israel.
What started as a whisper on campus has turned into a full-fledged assault on the Jewish state. It is a new movement that is sweeping many campuses across the country.
While the movement has largely failed to gain any momentum on campus, concerns about the wider issues raised by divestment campaigns are strongly felt in the Jewish community.
Not surprisingly, this assault against Israel has turned nasty. The singling-out of Israel goes beyond criticism of Israeli government policies to hateful comparisons of a kind appropriately described this fall by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers as being “anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.” It comes in a period of growing anti-Semitism worldwide, fueling a climate of hate and intimidation that has spilled over lately onto the college campus.
The campaigns, which call for universities to stop investing in companies doing business in Israel, have made hideous comparisons to apartheid and references to Israel as a “racist state” as arguments for encouraging divestment. The recent divestiture conference at Michigan described battling “the racism and discrimination inherent in Zionism” as its core mission while predictably failing to make any reference to Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians.
The calls to boycott Israel have been accompanied by frequent assaults against Israeli speakers and academics, who have faced cancellations and boycotts on campus, even if their reasons for visiting a particular institution are non-political in nature. Anti-Israel activities on campus have in some cases led to overt expressions of anti-Semitism, with a rise over the past two years in vandalism and assaults against Jewish students.
University officials increasingly are taking these incidents seriously and speaking out about the need to keep campuses free of hate. Aside from Summers, the chancellors of San Francisco State University, the University of Colorado, the University of Michigan and the State University of New York at Binghamton all have spoken out on the necessity of civil discourse and observance of the law on campus.
Those administrators who do speak up, however, are being criticized for attempting to stifle debate by labeling Israel’s critics as anti-Semitic.
The call for divestment is offensive and inappropriate on several levels. For one, the divestment movement has all but ignored the fact that Israel was prepared to make substantial concessions for peace two years ago at Camp David, and the fact that the people of Israel are still ready for concessions if only the terror stops and the Palestinians finally give up their old dreams about Israel disappearing.
Second, the absurd comparison of Israel to an apartheid regime ignores fundamental facts, especially the nature of Israel’s democratic society. Israel remains the lone democracy in the Middle East, with all institutions – a free press, a multitude of parties and an independent judiciary and religious freedom — that are at the heart of true liberal democracies. The region and the world have tens of states that do not come close to lining up to Israel’s standards.
It is no accident that not a single university has taken the calls for divestment seriously. The movement for divestment against South Africa in the 1980s represented a broad consensus among human rights groups and the international community. The new anti-Israel campus divestment movement, however, has been characterized by the extreme anti-Israel activism of certain groups — either Islamic groups or certain left-wing groups who have always been opposed to Israel, and sometimes even to Israel’s very existence.
The focus on Israel is ludicrous and clearly the result of a double standard being applied, which raises the possibility that anti-Semitism is the real motive of divestment campaigns.
The toxic rhetoric of the divestment campaigns raises concerns about renewed anti-Semitism on campus. The rhetoric reinforces the notion that it is OK to attack Jewish students, who become inextricably linked in the minds of Israel’s detractors with “Zionists” and supporters of Israel’s so-called “racist policies.” The danger is that the divestiture movement could fuel new anti-Semitism on campus.
Meanwhile, those leading the divestment campaigns seem to be encouraged whenever their activities raise the charge of anti-Semitism, especially in the press.
While insisting that their campaign is not anti-Semitic, they seem to be out to push the envelope to ensure that their critics will label them as such.
During the recent Second National Conference on the Palestine Solidarity Movement in Michigan, conference organizers pointed out that the divestiture movement was grabbing headlines on campuses. “It’s so easy to get a campus headline,” a political activist told a crowd of students at the conference. “A tiny group of people at Wayne State said, ‘Let’s Divest’ and got 50 to 70 signatures. They had major headlines day after day for three days. You can do that on your campus.”
University administrators and fair-minded students must continue to reject this campaign, whose goals are clearly to delegitimize Israel and its supporters.
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