At the University of Texas, a small group of students is taking an unusual interest in the school's investment portfolio. Once a week, about 10 meet to look it over. They are not hunting for stock tips. What they are hunting for is companies that do substantial business with Israel. Students sympathetic to the Palestinian cause have been circulating a petition around the Austin campus since July, calling on the university to sell off the stock of those firms. "You hear President Bush calling Ariel Sharon a man of peace," says Andy Gallagher, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. "Then you start looking at the facts, and it plays on your soul."
At a time when Israeli tanks have repeatedly rolled into the West Bank in response to terrorist bombings, a new kind of pro-Palestinian college activism is spreading. Guerrilla theater is one of the tactics. At the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, students dressed like Israeli soldiers have set up mock checkpoints on campus to "harass" students playing Palestinians. But the chief focus of anti-Israel feeling is the divestment campaign, which has been gaining momentum — and opponents. Petitions for divestment have circulated at more than 50 campuses, including Tufts and Cornell. In the University of California system, more than 7,000 students and faculty members have signed. A pro-divestment group at Princeton has singled out 16 companies as targets, including General Electric, IBM and McDonald's.
"Before, the only tool we could use was a rally or an editorial," says Rita Hamad, a senior at Harvard, where a divestment petition with M.I.T. has attracted 565 signatures. "Now we have [divestment], which might actually make a difference." (Activists claim that Harvard has more than $600 million invested in companies that have interests in Israel.) Some of the divestment activists come from the anti-globalism movement or from campus groups for Muslim students. A few of the groups, like those at the University of Michigan and U.C. Berkeley, take pains to point out that they have Jewish students among their supporters.
Schools are not rushing to sell right now, but supporters hope that divestment is an idea that will take off the way it did in the 1980s when the target was South Africa. They plan a national conference for Oct. 12-14 at the University of Michigan to design ways to advance the new campaign.
The movement thus far has pressed up against a question that didn't complicate the fight against apartheid: At what point does opposition to Israeli policy slide into the mud fields of old-fashioned anti-Semitism? At U.C. Berkeley on the first night of Passover, someone threw a cinder block through the glass door of the campus Hillel center for Jewish students and spray painted the words F--- JEWS on the wall. Around the same time, Jewish students were assaulted on their way to or from campus. Though there's no evidence to suggest a link, the divestment campaign turned into an ugly scuffle two weeks later when 79 protestors (half of them students) were arrested after seizing a campus building where a midterm exam was under way.
Harvard President Lawrence Summers brought the issue to a head two weeks ago when he used a morning prayer address to warn about growing anti-Semitism on campuses. "Serious and thoughtful people," he said, "are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent." Says Alan M. Dershowitz, the omnipresent lawyer who teaches at Harvard: "There's nothing wrong with criticizing Israel. But to compare Israel's policies to the worst human-rights abuses, that's an attempt to delegitimize Israel." In response, divestment supporters say Summers is attempting to cut off debate by delegitimizing them as anti-Semites. "Israel has been our closest ally for decades, and rightly so," says psychology professor Patrick Cavanagh, who signed the Harvard petition last spring. "But there are hardly any discussions about its policies."
Israel's supporters are fighting back in other ways. At Harvard and M.I.T., a petition opposing divestment was signed by 5,800 people. Four thousand have signed one at Berkeley. Two weeks ago, the Middle East Forum, a pro-Israel think tank, formed a website, Campus Watch, that stirred up a tempest all its own. It includes "dossiers" on scholars and schools the group believes bear watching for what it says are virulent views on Israel. To fatten the dossiers, students are urged to send in reports on their professors.
That led a group of nearly 100 angry academics last week to complain of McCarthyism. To support the scholars the website singles out, they demanded to be included on the list of "suspect" faculty. "These moans and bleats saying we are being intimidating are preposterous," says forum director Daniel Pipes. But just who is trying to intimidate whom goes to the heart of the latest campus showdown.