Divestment, its Support and Opposition
By Will Youmans
6 August 2002
Harvard Law School professor and member of the
all-star O.J. Simpson defense team Alan Dershowitz told a journalist
from the Financial Times that he would commit himself to the destruction
of any university that divests from Israel.
In February of 2002, a national conference centered on divestment
as a strategy for pro-Palestinian campus activism convened in Berkeley,
California. Over 450 participants discussed focusing on the goal
of ending their respective universities' financial connections to
Israel by divesting or disinvesting from Israel and corporations
that do significant business with Israel. Groups from twenty-two
universities signed on to a final document.
Since then, a combined group at Harvard and M.I.T. started a petition
calling for divestment. It was initiated independent of the Berkeley
conference. 124 faculty members signed on so far. They drew the
petition's language from a pro-divestment statement 40 professors
and 300 students at Princeton published. University of California
faculty established an almost identical petition that garnered 192
signatures within two months.
Despite cold receptions from the universities petitioned, pro-Israeli
activists are growing increasingly alarmed. To borrow the words
of an Ann Arbor, they are "going nuts."
After the editorial board of the student newspaper at the University
of California, Los Angeles published an editorial calling for divestment
from Israel, US Congressman Henry Waxman condemned it in a letter
to the editor. It is hard to imagine a member of Congress regularly
reading the weekly summer edition of his college rag, so one can
be sure he was put up to it.
The pro-Israeli advocates are pulling out some heavy hitters for
this. One of the leading opponents of divestiture is Steven Spiegel,
a former aid to Bill Clinton on Middle East Affairs. Harvard Law
School professor and member of the all-star O.J. Simpson defense
team Alan Dershowitz told a journalist from the Financial Times
that he would commit himself to the destruction of any university
that divests from Israel. The Anti-Defamation League even took a
break from skinhead-hunting to issue a press release urging the
University of California to reject calls for divestment.
The involvement of such prominent players in combating a campus
movement indicates its potential potency. Here is a campaign with
a clear, logical precedence: universities divested from South Africa
because it as an Apartheid state. Thus, all pro-Palestinian activists
need to do is prove that Israel is an Apartheid state, and the same
path should, in the logical sense, follow. One has an easy argument
to make, and simplicity is what strong movements need.
The divestment strategy is based in universal ideals, such as equality
under the law, and other principles of secular democracy. There
is no religious or nationalist basis for this claim, so it attracts
a diverse array of people, and relies on the legal-moral tenor of
American institutions in a way that most pro-Palestinian language
does not. The result: it is taking off and Zionists are scurrying
to combat it.
They are organizing counter-petitions and lobbying the administration
to reject divestment. Pro-Israeli organizations are taking Jewish
students to Israeli for activism training, sending student newspaper
editors for tours of Israel, and mobilizing the Jewish community's
resources to help them.
On the other hand, Zionists on campus are becoming more inherently
reactionary and visibly defensive while, for the first time, pro-Palestinian
campus activists are on the offensive. By forcing open a debate
and making a global issue a local one, proponents of divestment
are building dynamic venues for education. Many consider this more
important than divestment itself. The more vigilant the reaction,
the more intense and public the debate. That is just what pro-Palestinian
Either way, the divestment strategy is an amazing improvement over
the nebulous educational efforts of the past. This is a measurable
and tangible campaign that energizes people. Just trying to educate
a campus is inviting frustration because progress is immeasurable
and there is no attainable final objective. Divestment is something
to work for, and the dialectic relationship a campaign has with
the administration can fuel it.
For this reason, the primary target in a divestment campaign is
not the pro-Israeli lobby or its activists. The opposition in all
of this really is the administration. What they want more than anything
else is for proponents of divestment to get caught in a squabble
with supporters of Israel. All appeals, arguments, and organized
pressure should be placed on the University's decision-makers. That
will put Zionists in the position of attacking. They will appear
as the "anti-" group, existing only to block a student
initiative. Proponents of divestment will have successfully set
the terms of the debate with the following question: Is Israel an
Anyone interested in getting involved with divestment efforts should
attend the Second National Student Conference on the Palestine Solidarity
Movement at the University of Michigan during October 12-14, 2002.
Will Youmans is with the Students for Justice in Palestine, and
a student at UC-Berkeley's Boalt School of Law