Some urge divestment from Israel

by Megh Duwadi | 5/20/02 5:00am

A campaign calling on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University to withdraw their investments from Israel in protest of alleged human rights violations experienced a setback Thursday as Harvard President Lawrence Summers voiced opposition toward the movement.

In a statement backing Harvard's investments in companies that operate in Israel, Summers broke the general silence among college administrators throughout the United States in response to a burgeoning pro-Palestinian movement that has incited sometimes-hostile debate among students and faculty.

The campaigns at Harvard, MIT and elsewhere across the country echo protests that convinced many colleges -- including Dartmouth -- to divest themselves from apartheid-era South Africa.

Those who had spoken at a May 6 teach-in at MIT promoting divestment from Israel -- organized by the Harvard-MIT Divestment Campaign -- urged the schools to extricate themselves from all companies conducting business in Israel until it withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Currently, $788.7 million of Harvard's and MIT's endowments -- which total $18.3 billion and $6.3 billion, respectively -- are invested in such corporations.

The 400-plus signers of a petition presented at the teach-in had also demanded that divestment from Israel end only once human rights violations of Palestinians and construction of West Bank settlements cease.

"This is part of a larger movement to get American universities to invest responsibly," said Najeeb Khoury, one of the movement's leading supporters.

Khoury, a Harvard Law School student, is the president of Justice for Palestine, a recently-formed organization that seeks "a secular humanist approach to the Palestinian problem and ... the rights of the Palestinian people," according to its website.

"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a conflict between equals," Khoury said. "It's a conflict between occupier and occupied. Part of the divestment campaign is to educate people of what exactly is going on."

Khoury voiced frustration at the Harvard and MIT administrations for their stances on divestment -- "MIT has no comment," according to its news office director, Ken Campbell -- as well as hope for increased knowledge of the issue among the general populace.

"Hopefully by raising awareness, divestment will become more of a possibility," he said.

The petition though appears to have had the opposite effect.

Critics of the divestment campaign began circulating an anti-divestment petition among Harvard and MIT faculty, staff and students May 10 that has already garnered nearly 5,000 signatures, more than 12 times the divestment petition's number. Endorsed by Harvard Students for Israel and Harvard Hillel -- the Jewish student organization -- the anti-divestment effort asserts Israel's right to exist and denounces the divestment petition for its alleged pro-Palestinian one-sidedness.

"By its nature, the divestment movement is much more extreme," outgoing Harvard Students for Israel president Avram Heilman said. "It gets much more attention because it's so off the wall."

In reaction to the divestment petition and teach-in, the Harvard Students for Israel organized a rally May 6 for peace and security in Israel, Heilman said.

To varying degrees, divestment debates continue to polarize other college campuses. At Princeton University, where 50 individuals have joined without an official organization's backing, 400 students and faculty have signed a petition to withdraw $100 million from Israel since late April.

"I think a lot of people are very interested in the issue," campaign organizer Vincent Lloyd said. "By having informative events on campus, I think we're putting a lot of public attention on this issue."

While divestment supporters have attempted to heighten awareness of Israel's perceived social injustices through newspaper advertisements, fliers distributed in dining halls and a protest rally, the efficacy of the campaign is questionable.

"To the average Princeton student, they're probably not even aware of it," senior Ben Shopsin said. "It's certainly not any mass movement with much popularity among the larger student body."

Lloyd compared the Princeton administration's response to the campaign for divestment from South Africa. Princeton divested after more than 20 years of students' urging.

"As time goes on, the administration will be forced to take the morally correct position," Lloyd said.

Princeton Israel Public Affairs Committee co-chair Leo Lazar disagreed.

Decrying his opponents as ultra-liberals who were "thrown into the divestment campaign," Lazar said that PIPAC's efforts against the petition for divestment have been largely successful.

"We're trying to prove that the divestment group is intellectually dishonest to the student body," Lazar said. "The point we've been trying to make is that their opinion on the Middle East is not what Princeton students should rely on."

Lazar mentioned political apathy at Princeton as a factor in students' nonchalance toward divestment efforts.

"I don't think the campus is taking what they say seriously," Lazar said.

Similar disputes continue at 30 other institutions, including Brown University and the University of California - Berkeley.

At Dartmouth, the issue of divestment from Israel has been left untouched. Student-run "socially responsible investing" campaigns do not mention the subject and administrators claim they cannot determine offhand how much the College has invested in corporations doing business in Israel.

Associate Vice President for Investments Jonathan King was unable to give exact dollar values for Dartmouth's Israel investments, although he mentioned that "the College right now is going through a process where it's reevaluating issues pertaining to socially responsible investing."