Campaigns pushing universities to divest their investments from companies doing business in Israel appear to be gaining steam, with radical student groups claiming two key victories in the past week. Meanwhile, the schools at issue say the student claims exaggerate what really happened.
The situation at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. remains murky. The school's board of trustees voted Feb. 7 to shift as much as a quarter of its investment portfolio after complaints from a group called "Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)." The group wanted Hampshire to divest its investments in six companies that do business in Israel.
The trustees vote accomplishes that. But school officials say the companies - Caterpillar, United Technologies, General Electric, ITT Corporation, Motorola, and Terex – were not targeted for their work in Israel. Rather, they say the State Street investment fund had holdings in more than 100 companies that do not meet Hampshire's socially responsible investment policy. The policy covers everything from weapons manufacturing to unfair labor policies and environmental concerns.
The SJP wasn't buying it. It issued a statement hailing the move as "the first of any college or university in the U.S. to divest from companies on the grounds of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine."
The Jerusalem Post reported the trustees' action would attract widespread attention. "Such a move by the small Massachusetts college would have dramatic symbolic power, as Hampshire was the first US college to divest from the apartheid regime of South Africa in the late 1970s."
The SJP has chapters on campuses throughout the country. The extent of their coordination, if any, is unclear from their respective websites. Hampshire College's chapter site focuses primarily on the recent divestment effort. But at the University of California-Berkeley, a section on key issues casts Hamas as "[a] vast social organization" with a "militia established to fight Israeli troops in the occupied territories." It makes no mention of Hamas terrorism – its campaign of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians or its incessant rain of rocket fire on Israeli cities. Instead, it claims "Hamas officials have often stated that they are ready for a long-term truce with Israel during which time final status negotiations can occur."
Minutes of the trustees' meeting show Hampshire President Ralph Hexter credited "the good work" of the SJP in raising the issue. He now insists that was not a reference to SJP's focus on Israel, but rather in prompting a review of institutional investments.
"We're in an awkward position that people are claiming falsely what this is and all I can do is deny it," Hexter told Inside Higher Ed. "I can tell you personally as president that I am definitely opposed to divestment from Israel."
Like the student group, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz finds Hampshire's explanations dubious. Dershowitz, author of The Case for Israel and most recently The Case Against Israel's Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace, told Inside Higher Ed that he will organize a campaign to cut off donations to Hampshire if the decisions stand. Anything that allows SJP to claim victory is unacceptable.
"Both sides can't win," he said, "and Hampshire let the anti-Israel students win and they will pay a heavy price for that. Unless they withdraw it, they withdraw it and they make it clear they have rejected these efforts to divest from Israel."
In a separate statement, Dershowitz said the divestment effort is "part of an international campaign against Israel" by people who consider all of Israel to be "Occupied Palestine":
"Until now, every American university administration has categorically rejected this attempt to single out Israel in a world filled with massive human rights abusers. But Hampshire caved in to student and faculty pressure and as Board of Directors agreed to divest from these six companies along with a series of others that did not meet the standards of Hampshire College."
He notes that the student groups pushing divestment ignore terrorism by Hamas or its refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist. And Hampshire continues to invest in companies dealing with notorious human rights abusers including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China and others. That shows the effort "has absolutely nothing to do with human rights. It is motivated purely by hatred for the Jewish state." To read all of Dershowitz's statement, click here.
It isn't clear whether the university's investments already have been shifted to a new fund. Nor is it clear why the university had not kept afoot of compliance with a pre-existing policy on socially responsible investing before the SJP petition surfaced. Efforts to reach Hampshire spokeswoman Elaine Thomas were unsuccessful. Board of Trustees chairman Sigmund Roos declined to comment for this story.
The school did issue a statement sent to alumni, parents and donors. The investment changes were triggered by SJP concerns, it said, but:
"[T]he decision expressly did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country … No other report or interpretation of the actions of February 7, 2009 by the Hampshire College board of trustees is accurate."
University of Rochester officials issued their own statement last week challenging a student group's claim that Rochester acquiesced to their own demands about Israel.
Students for a Democratic Society staged a sit-in Feb. 6 on Rochester's campus. After it ended, the group claimed victory, saying the dean of student affairs agreed to their demands.
"This marks a first step in a divestment campaign at the University of Rochester and a model for student occupations against Israeli apartheid to learn from and gain inspiration from. The Dean of Student Affairs was shaking in his seat. This is the first of its kind occupation in this country on this issue and we won in under 9 hours!"
In fact, no decisions have been made at the University of Rochester, spokeswoman Sharon Dickman said. She categorized the university's agreement with the students as a promise to continue talking. The students can present a divestment proposal to Rochester's board of trustees, she said. The trustees meetings are not open to the public and Dickman did not know when the next meeting was scheduled.
Regardless of the explanations from the two administrations, the apparent success the student groups have enjoyed in the past week should motivate fellow-travelers and colleges and universities throughout the country. The issue, it seems, is heating up.