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Israel Divestment Campaign Failing to Sway U.S. College Administrators

We’re guessing you didn’t mark it on your calendar with an asterisk: Feb. 3-9 is Israel Apartheid Week around the world.

But students from Berkeley to New Brunswick to New York did. So it’s a good bet that in the coming week, an observant news watcher will learn how to read the phrase “divest from Israel” in many languages.

And while the perennially photogenic campus Israel divestment movement has garnered a firestorm of media coverage and induced much hand wringing in the Jewish community, divestment demands — in any language — have had little effect on American university administrators.

The Michigan-based Ann Arbor Friends Meeting noted a pro-divestment resolution passed by the University of Wisconsin-Platteville faculty senate and the student government of the University of Michigan-Dearborn — and that’s it.

Neither resolution was taken up by those administrations. The same goes for the ballyhooed petitions at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as the divestment drive circulated at the University of California, Berkeley, and other campuses in the state’s university system.

It’s not that universities are automatically averse to divestment movements. In 2006, the University of California system divested millions of dollars from companies doing business in Sudan. The Iranian divestment movement also has gained momentum across the country.

“A lot more obstacles stand in the way of the Israel divestment movement than Iran or Sudan,” said Jason Miller, a sixth-year medical student at the University of California, San Francisco, who co-founded the Sudan Divestment Task Force in 2005.

“They still have the same hurdles facing the Sudan or Iran movements, which are inertia and the fact that people don’t like their investments to be restricted,” he said. “But we didn’t face opposition on campuses on our principal stance. [People weren’t saying] ‘it’s not genocide and we shouldn’t take action.’ Israel divestment faces exactly that.”

Although Berkeley is prominently listed as one of the campuses participating in Israel Apartheid Week, Trey Davis, an Oakland-based spokesman for the University of California system, said no messages about Israel divestment have landed on his desk in the past several years.

“Over the years divestment appeals come up on a whole wide range of reasons — environmental impacts, labor practices, health care and so forth,” he said.

But none of these situations rose to the horrors of Darfur, where an “ongoing genocide” provided “the magnitude for this exceptional action.”

And there’s the rub: The notion that Israel is committing a “genocide” against the Palestinians comparable to that being perpetrated on the Darfurians does not hold water with the American public, including university administrators.

“Most people who hear comparisons of Israel with apartheid-era South Africa realize it’s just pure propaganda and dismiss it out of hand,” said Yitzhak Santis, the director of Middle Eastern affairs for the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council.

Furthermore, based on the visceral responses of Jews on and off the nation’s campuses, any university chancellor who would seriously consider pulling investments out of Israel knows he or she would be entering a world of pain.

The same cannot be said for the nation’s Protestant religious movements.

In 2004, a Presbyterian General Assembly floor vote ratified a resolution supporting peaceful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Buried deep within the resolution was an amendment that opened the door to Israel divestment. That door was partially closed with a strongly worded reversal at the 2006 Presbyterian plenum.

The religious movement’s 2008 gathering will be held in San Jose this June, and Santis foresees a floor battle over divestment.

Five Methodist regions, among more than 100, voted recently to support Israel divestment as well. Israel divestment is expected to be a prominent topic at the Methodist quadrennial in May in Fort Worth, Texas.

Many of the more ardent church leaders advocating disengagement are Palestinian Christians.

“You have Palestinian voices inside the church pushing the cause,” Santis said.

“Jewish voices are systematically left out. I want to be very clear about this — we are at a distinct disadvantage.”

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