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The Anti-Israel Divestment Campaign RULE On Campus

Posted: October 9, 2006

On Campus
City Councils and Other Public Initiatives
Will Divestment Efforts Continue?
How to Counter Divestment Campaigns

In response to Israel's military action to staunch the barrage of Hamas rockets hurled at Israeli towns and cities in December 2008 and January 2009, students and faculty on college campuses nationwide have attempted to steer university and public support away from Israel by initiating petitions, resolutions and other efforts promoting boycott and divestment campaigns against Israeli and Israel-affiliated companies and institutions.


Professors and other speakers have advocated for boycott and divestment efforts against Israel in their writings and during panel discussions, talks and meetings on and off campus. In some cases, the campus events have been sponsored or co-sponsored by academic departments or faculty organizations of the hosting college or university. Boycott and divestment campaigns against Israel have also been a recurring theme at rallies and demonstrations organized on campuses in response to Israel's winter offensive in Gaza.


Campus divestment efforts gained some traction in mid-February, when a decision by Hampshire College to disinvest from a mutual fund with ties to Israel prompted Students for Justice in Palestine, a student group that had been pushing for divestment at Hampshire, to claim victory. Despite Hampshire's insistence that its action was unrelated to Israel, individuals and groups on campuses nationwide used the attention garnered by the Hampshire effort to push their own divestment campaigns forward.   


The revival of efforts to divest from Israel at universities and college campuses has marked a departure from the past, when such campaigns were largely organized under the umbrella of the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM), which for many years promoted a view of the Middle East conflict that is extremely hostile to Israel. The PSM argued that Zionism is a racist ideology and the group refused to condemn violent acts against Israeli civilians, stating: "as a solidarity movement, it is not our place to dictate the strategies or tactics adopted by the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation."


PSM's influence in the divestment movement has waned in recent years, making room for the formation of new groups dedicated to promoting boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) agendas, such as The U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.




The campus divestment campaign was initiated in February 2001 by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a student group at the University of California, Berkeley, in conjunction with the San Francisco chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. A year later, following the PSM's first conference, which was held in Berkeley, the movement began to spread to other universities, including the University of Michigan, Yale, Princeton, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Building on the Israeli incursion into Palestinian towns in spring 2002 (in response to a wave of suicide bombings), the movement was able to energize pro-Palestinian advocates on campuses nationwide with its call to divest.  The PSM has held several national conferences and it has managed to unify pro-Palestinian campus activists behind the push for divestment.


The campaign has failed, however, to convince targeted academic institutions to pull investments from Israel or from U.S. companies that do business with Israel. By fall 2003, disagreements within the movement and the failure to register any real accomplishments had impeded its growth. Looking to appeal to larger audiences and avoid creating antagonism, some organizers argued for a more moderate tone; others sought to recast the movement as part of a global struggle.  Events in the Middle East, such as Israel's disengagement from Gaza and the victory of the terrorist organization Hamas in the Palestinian election (the latter was hailed by some divestment proponents), will probably further diminish the campaign's appeal.


Since the beginning of 2005, pro-divestment activists managed to pass favorable resolutions at student and professional bodies in small colleges associated with the Michigan and Wisconsin systems, but these localized successes lacked broad support within the institutions and were ultimately rejected by universities' Board of Regents.


The Fifth Annual Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement took place on February 17-19, 2006 at Georgetown University. While local divestment debates and petitions continue, the PSM has not hosted a national conference to train new activists since 2006. 


Several university presidents and administrators have spoken out against divestment and deplored the animosity that these campaigns have often brought to campus (while upholding the supporters' right to free speech). Here are a few examples:


  • University of Michigan Regent Larry Deitch said of divestment: "It's just not a good idea. Many of us feel that divestment should only be used in the most extreme and egregious examples, and even then there's a question of whether it's a good thing for universities to do." (Michigan Daily, March 17, 2006.)
  • Georgetown University President John DeGioia stated:  "I do not support divestment from Israel."  (Meeting with faculty, January 2006).
  • University of Pennsylvania president, Judith Rodin, published an article explaining "why targeting Israel for divestment and boycotts is wrong." (The Daily Pennsylvania, October 18, 2002).
  • Rutgers University President Richard McCormick: "The governor [of New Jersey] and I agreed that we find the views of New Jersey Solidarity to be reprehensible. But we also agreed that the best way to counter deplorable arguments is more discussion" (Statement released to the press, July 17, 2003).
  • Columbia University President Lee Bollinger: "I want to state clearly that I will not lend any support to this proposal. The petition alleges human rights abuses and compares Israel to South Africa at the time of apartheid, an analogy I believe is both grotesque and offensive." (Statement posted to the University's Web site, November 2002).
  • Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers rejected the divestment proposal, saying, "The suggestion that [Israel's] defense against terrorist attacks is inherently immoral seems to me to be an unsupportable one" (Harvard Crimson, May 15, 2002). In a speech arguing that divestment efforts helped create anti-Jewish environments, he said: "Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent" (September 17, 2002).

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Boycott & Divestment Efforts Proliferate on Campus
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