Israel supporters in Cambridge, Mass., have hit back hard in response to a small faculty campaign urging Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to divest from companies doing business in Israel.
Responding to a pro-divestment faculty petition that garnered nearly 120 signatures, 4,000 Harvard and MIT faculty, students and staff have signed a counter-petition calling the divestment effort “a one-sided attempt to delegitimize Israel.”
Among the more famous anti-divestment signatories are law professors Alan Dershowitz and Laurence Tribe, Near Eastern languages and civilizations professor Shaye Cohen and medical professor Dr. Jerome Groopman.
The debate at Harvard and MIT comes amid a flurry of divestment campaigns at universities across the United States, including Princeton, the University of Michigan and the University of California system.
Modeled on successful efforts in the 1980s to get universities to divest their holdings in apartheid South Africa, the new campaigns often make explicit comparisons between Israel and South Africa.
For example, the Web site promoting the Princeton divestment petition — which has the support of 41 faculty members — features a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “If I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa.”
A conference aimed at launching a national divestment effort was held in March in Berkeley, organized by a group called Students for Justice in Palestine.
The divestment activists have not yet persuaded any university to consider divesting from companies operating in Israel or from U.S. companies that sell arms to Israel.
However, Jewish groups say the campaign’s real goal is to demonize Israel.
“It’s a tool to implant in the minds of the campus and the larger society that Israel today is like the South Africa of yore, that Israel is the contemporary apartheid state,” said Jeffrey Ross, director of campus-higher education affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.
The efforts also are an attempt to attract left-wing students and non-white students to the Palestinian cause, Ross said.
The divestment effort at Harvard and MIT suffered setbacks with a May 8 editorial in the Harvard Crimson calling comparisons to South Africa “offensive, repugnant and detrimental to peace.”
“This proposal for divestment once again makes Israel the victim of a double standard,” the editorial says. “Israel is not the only nation that takes strong and forceful action in times of war, yet it is consistently singled out for criticism.”
Harvard’s president, Lawrence Summers, told students at a public event that he opposes divestment from Israel, the Crimson reported.
The Harvard-MIT divestment effort sparked particular concern, Jewish activists say, because two of the faculty signatories were “house masters,” or faculty who serve as counselors and advisers at residential halls.
The divestment petition calls on the universities to divest until Israel — among other things — complies with U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and accepts that Palestinian refugees either should be allowed to return to their former lands or be compensated for their losses.
Israel accepts Resolution 242 and other resolutions on refugees — but not the Arab interpretation of those documents.
Harvard has an estimated $614 million in investments in companies that do business in Israel.
Beside the 54 MIT faculty and 64 Harvard ones, five Israeli academics signed the petition calling for divestment.
The anti-divestment petition, written by Harvard and MIT faculty and signed by faculty, staff, students and alumni, has been circulated in part by a new student group called Harvard Students for Justice in the Middle East.
The petition notes that the signatories have “diverse opinions on how peace in the Middle East can be achieved,” but notes that “to place blame solely on Israel for the recent state of affairs and to demand unilateral concessions without showing any concern for its self-defense is unjust.”
Jeffrey Bander, a medical student who in the past few weeks helped spearhead Harvard Students for Justice in the Middle East, said the anti-divestment petition’s success is “a good example for other Jews.”
Bander, who has been to Israel several times but had not previously been involved in campus Jewish organizations, said the group was born out of frustration over “the propaganda and misinformation prevalent on campus.”
“I feel that in general there’s a war going on on our campuses, and that war is being won and fought very well by the pro-Palestinian side,” Bander said. “Very little is done by Jewish groups or agencies to help explain what Israel’s position is.”
Harvard’s Hillel also has circulated the anti-divestment petition. In addition, it is sending a student-faculty solidarity mission to Israel next month, and is raising money to purchase new ambulances for Israel.
The campus also started a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group this spring.
While Harvard has not been a hub of anti-Israel activity, it has been “uncomfortable to state really pro-Israel views in public” there, said Benjamin Solomon-Schwartz, Hillel’s student president.
“In general, especially within the Jewish community, this is a difficult question because we want to say something powerful in support of Israel, but there is a large diversity of opinions,” Solomon-Schwartz said. “We don’t want to alienate people who don’t have a certain opinion, but we want to be a voice for support of Israel on campus.”
Princeton’s divestment campaign sparked a smaller counter-effort, spearheaded in part by Adina Yoffie, daughter of the Reform movement’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.
A senior at Princeton, Adina Yoffie mobilized several campus Jewish groups and collected 110 undergraduate signatures for a petition against divestment.
Pro-divestment activists collected 300 signatures, many belonging to faculty and graduate students.
Because there were petitions on both sides, the Princeton administration announced that it would not consider the possibility of divesting at this point.