Princeton University professors have opened a new front in the battle over Israel on campus with a petition signed by 60 tenured faculty members calling for the university to divest from companies backing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
The explosive protest, the most powerful faculty-led effort at an Ivy League school in recent years, has triggered a wideranging debate over the Middle East conflict within the Jewish community at the bucolic New Jersey campus and sparked pro-Israel counter petitions from both students and faculty.
"The intention of our petition was to clarify that there is faculty support for divestment," said Max Weiss, a professor of History and Near Eastern Studies at Princeton and one of the five authors of the petition. "There is already student activism which is operating on its own terms."
The pro-divestment professors unveiled their petition in a campus newspaper early this month with 48 names. Weiss says the number of signatories has since risen to at least 60. Organizers say they limited the list to tenured faculty to protect junior faculty from having to take a stand on such a controversial topic.
The organizers plan to present the petition to Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber before Thanksgiving.
After the petition was published, pro-Israel professors responded with a petition of their own opposing divestment that was signed by at least 63 tenured and non-tenured faculty. A pro-Israel student group has gathered 300 student signatures on an anti-divestment petition and pro-Palestinian groups are working to build support too.
There are about 550 tenured faculty at Princeton, meaning around 11% have signed the pro-divestment document.
Weiss insists that it was not the direct intention of organizers to roil the Ivy League campus. But the opinion pieces and discussion the petition prompted have amounted to some of the most active debate on Princeton's campus regarding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank to date.
The feud has also exposed sharp fault lines in the organized Jewish community at Princeton.
The Center for Jewish Life, which is the campus affiliate of the national Jewish student group Hillel, has strongly opposed the petition. Rabbi Julie Roth, the executive director of the CJL, sent an email to the community that included a link to the petition opposing divestment.
That move angered some Jewish students who say the center should not take sides on a political issue on which Jewish students are divided.
"It gave an institutional stance on a political issue that's still up for debate in the community," said Josh Leifer, one of the authors of an open letter to the CJL regarding the email.
He claimed that Roth also misconstrued the petition, which opposes the occupation of the West Bank and does not take aim at Israel itself.
"I think it's really important that the Jewish community and other people recognize that this divestment petition isn't BDS," Leifer said.
Roth was not available for comment and the head of a pro-Israel group Tigers for Israel declined to comment.
Both groups have contended that it is misguided and counterproductive to focus the discussion around divestment. They believe the campaign places an outsized share of blame on Israel, and they contend the Palestinians are also responsible for continuing the conflict.
Daniel Kurtzer, a Princeton professor and former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, told the Daily Princetonian that the petition reflected a basic misconception of the Mideast conflict.
"To choose sides at this time is to trivialize history," Kurtzer told the paper.
Despite the tumult, little change is likely anytime soon. Recent movements to divestment from fossil fuels and assault weapons have not made a notable impact, and the last major divestment move made by Princeton was to isolate apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
The university has not publicly commented on the pro-divestment petition and organizers haven't announced their next steps.
Many of the participants in the debate, both professors and students, have been actively involved in the Israeli-Palestinian debate for years.
But Weiss says many of the professors who signed the petition were galvanized to take a stand by the Israeli war in Gaza last summer.
Douglas Massey, a signatory to the petition who is a professor of sociology at Princeton and president of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, said that he considers it a moral imperative to stand up against Israeli policies with which he disagrees.
"If you're critical of a policy position, and you don't take a stand," Massey said, "that's cowardly."