Student government councils are urging administrations to divest from companies that enable what they see as Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. The effort appears to be gaining traction on U.S. campuses.
LOS ANGELES — The debates can stretch from dusk to dawn, punctuated by tearful speeches and forceful shouting matches, with accusations of racism, colonialism and anti-Semitism. At dozens of college campuses across the country, student-government councils are embracing resolutions calling on their administrations to divest from companies that enable what they see as Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians.
And while no university boards or administrators are heeding the students’ demands, the effort to pressure Israel appears to be gaining traction at campuses across the country and driving a wedge between many Jewish and minority students.
The movement is part of the broader Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, or BDS, which has spread in recent years both in Europe and the United States. The issue has received intense attention on campus particularly since the conflict in Gaza last summer, which killed hundreds of Palestinians. The movement’s goal is to isolate and punish Israel for its policies toward Palestinians and its occupation of the West Bank.
There are now Israel-related divestment groups at hundreds of major colleges, including the University of Michigan, Princeton, Cornell and most of the University of California campuses. Their proposals are having mixed success: So far this year, students have passed them on seven campuses and rejected them on eight.
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College activists favoring divestment have cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a powerful force’s oppression of a displaced group, and have formed alliances with black, Latino, Asian, Native American, feminist and gay-rights organizations on campus.
The coalitions — which explicitly link the Palestinian cause to issues like police brutality, immigration and gay rights — have caught many longtime Jewish leaders off guard, particularly because they belonged to such progressive coalitions less than a generation ago.
At Northwestern University this year, for example, the student government debated a divestment resolution for more than five hours, as students with clashing views sat on opposite sides of the room. Some of the talk was openly hostile, with charges of racism and colonialism.
“Discomfort is felt by every person of color on this campus,” said Egyptian-American senior Hagar Gomaa. “To those who say this divestment bill makes you uncomfortable, I say: Check your privilege.”
A speaker who identified herself only as a Chicana student said she was there to support Palestinians on campus.
“We have seen the racism of people who get mad that so many empowered minorities are recognizing how their struggles are tied to the Palestinian struggle,” she said. “Students have accused us of conflating many cases of oppression. To these students, I have a couple of words for you: What you call conflation, we call solidarity.”
A student who said she had family in Israel was among those who shot back for the other side. Voting for divestiture, she said, is “pointing fingers, it’s aggressive, it’s misinformed, it’s unjust, and — most important for this campus — it’s totally one-sided.”
When the vote was finally taken by secret ballot, the tally was close, with 24 in favor of asking Northwestern’s administration to divest — which it did not do — and 22 against.
As the debates spill from undergraduate council to dorm room, students and college officials are grappling with where to draw the line between opposition to Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza — a position shared by many Jews — and hostility toward Jews. Opponents of divestment sometimes allude to the Holocaust.
“What bothers me is the shocking amnesia of people who look at the situation of American Jews right now and say, ‘You’re privileged, you don’t have a right to complain about discrimination,’ ” said Rachel Roberts, a freshman at Stanford who is on the board of the Jewish Student Association there. “To turn a blind eye to the sensitivities of someone’s cultural identity is to pretend that history didn’t happen.”
Everywhere, the discussions are long and tense: At Michigan, where the student government narrowly defeated a divestment resolution this year for the second time, university staff members were on hand to talk to students and help if they needed a break from the debate. At several schools where divestment proposals have been considered, swastikas have been painted on the doors of Jewish fraternities.
“There’s more poison in the rhetoric than we’ve ever felt before,” said Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the executive director of Hillel at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has worked on college campuses for more than four decades. “There are so many students who now see Israel as part of the establishment they’re against. What’s alarming is this gets deeply embedded and there’s no longer room for real discussion.”
But where many Jews say they worry about anti-Semitism, divestment activists say they are concerned about retaliation and the stifling of their views.
Sometimes, the specific aims of campus-divestment campaigns can get lost in broader debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At Barnard College, which is one-third Jewish, a group called Students for Justice in Palestine put up a banner last year saying, “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine,” showing a map of the area with no internal border demarcating Israel. The banner was taken down the next morning after Jewish students complained that it made them feel threatened.
Jannine Salman, the member of Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine who made the banner, said that anti-Zionism, not anti-Semitism, was the motive — and that the recent formation of a campus chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which favors divestment, should drive home the point.
“There is a bifurcation: Zionism is a political identity, Judaism is a religious identity, and it does a disservice to both to blur the line,” Salman said. “When there was the anti-apartheid boycott in South Africa, was that anti-white? Absolutely not. This is like that.”
Supporters of Israel say the most dangerous possibility is that the current campus atmosphere is delegitimizing the country, making it acceptable to question whether Jews are entitled to a nation.
At UCLA last month, hundreds of Jewish students waving Israeli flags and wearing shirts emblazoned with “We, the Zionists” gathered on the campus quad to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.
Some said that while they had never hidden that they were Jewish, they felt uncomfortable voicing their support for Israel and often chose to stay out of debates around other current political issues. When the student government considered a divestment resolution, Jewish student leaders encouraged their peers to stay away from the meeting, saying their presence would offer legitimacy to a process they deemed inherently wrong.
“When there were marches about Ferguson, I went, but I stayed on the sidelines,” said Natalie Charney, a UCLA senior and the president of the Hillel Student Board, who had been made uneasy by the chants of “From Ferguson to Palestine,” which she saw as totally unrelated. “I wanted to be there, but part of what they are hating is central to who I am and what I stand for.”
The Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement has been especially prominent in the University of California system, where nearly all of the student-government councils have approved divestment proposals.
“Jewish students and their parents are intensely apprehensive and insecure about this movement,” said Mark Yudof, a former president of the University of California system. “I hear it all the time: Where can I send my kids that will be safe for them as Jews?”
One of the few things both sides seem to agree on is just how divisive the issue has been. “It’s very corrosive for campus,” said Dylan Greif, 20, a Stanford junior from Miami. “Emotions are running high. There’s no gray area — there are no solutions.”