Between classes and homework, Fadi Kiblawi, a senior at the University of Michigan, spends his free time researching US companies that do business in Israel and whose stock is owned by his university.
What he's found so far is $151 million invested in 45 companies. His goal: to persuade the school to dump those stocks. Such a move, he and others hope, would begin to put economic pressure on Israel to soften its policies toward Palestinians.
The effort might seem far-fetched. Only last month, the new president of the university, Mary Sue Coleman, responded to the campaign by stating she had no intention of seeking divestment from Israel. But Mr. Kiblawi, who was raised in the United States by Palestinian parents, is undeterred. This weekend, he and his supporters will host a national conference on divesting from Israel at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. About 500 people, including students and speakers from scores of universities, are expected to attend, he says.
And support for his cause is apparently growing. Petitions calling for universities to disinvest from Israel are circulating across the University of California's 11 campuses and at least 23 others nationwide. Roughly 7,000 individuals have signed the requests, organizers say – and some predict the number of campaigns will mushroom as the school year progresses.
But opposition to the campaign is growing swiftly as well. What's resulted is an intense debate about the issue itself, as well as the role the university plays in supporting academic freedom and open discussion about topics that touch on deeply held beliefs and sensitivities.
The divest-from-Israel campaign, which began in earnest at the University of California at Berkeley this spring, is resonating in academia and beyond. Princeton, Yale, Cornell and others have petition campaigns. As of last week, 130 faculty, 216 students, and 237 staff and alumni at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had signed a joint online petition calling for divesting from Israel. Harvard has an estimated $614 million in such investments, according to the petitioners. MIT has about $174 million.
Still, protests against such petitions are gaining momentum. A counter-petition at Harvard and MIT has already gathered more than 5,800 signatures (including 439 Harvard professors and 143 MIT faculty). Key figures have also spoken out against divestment.
Charges of anti-Semitism
Harvard University President Lawrence Summers made headlines when, at a prayer meeting with students and faculty on Sept. 17, he warned of an "upturn in anti-Semitism" around the world. But what really grabbed people's attention was his criticism of divestment supporters on campus.
"Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities," said Mr. Summers, who is also Harvard's first Jewish president. "Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent." Those comments hit home. With Harvard often leading on emerging academic issues, the idea that thoughtful signers could be unintentional supporters of anti-Semitism sent shock waves throughout higher education. Indeed, for some Harvard and MIT faculty signers, Summers's assertion that some were unwittingly involved in an anti-Semitic act was just too much.
Daniel Fox, a professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT who helped organize the petition drive on his campus and who is Jewish, was surprised by Summers's comments.
"There is nothing anti-Semitic about the petition, neither in effect nor in intent," he wrote to the Monitor in an e-mail. "At a time when anti-Arab sentiments are rampant, I find it somewhat disturbing to hear an educational leader 'singling out' anti-Semitism while ignoring all other forms of racism."
Likewise, Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard who also helped promote the petition on her campus, considers herself an ardent supporter of Israel. She signed the petition because she sees it as a necessary first step toward a stable, two-state reconciliation.
"The charge [of anti-Semitism] is completely groundless, both for Jews like me and non-Jews who are supporters of the petition," she says. She wrote in The Harvard Crimson student newspaper that charges of anti-Semitism served to "deflect attention from the Israeli governmental actions" and onto the petitioners' motives.
Others, like Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, praised Summers for taking a stand. The outspoken lawyer argues that the petition campaign is intellectually bankrupt. One may reasonably debate Israel's policies, but "singling out" Israel – which has a better overall human-rights record than many other nations – is unfair, he says.
"You can't characterize as anti-Semitic all the signers of this petition," he says. "But Summers put his finger on it. Why do people single out only Israel for economic capital punishment? Let's debate whether Israel or China or Egypt merits it. Now that's a fair debate."
One of those who thinks singling out Israel is fair is Francis Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In a speech on campus in 2000, he suggested divesting from Israel. From a legal point of view, Israel's policies toward Palestinians paralleled those of South Africa's apartheid regime toward blacks, he argues. He points to the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, which identifies apartheid as a "crime against humanity." An organizer of the campaign to divest from South Africa, he thought the approach also made sense for Israel.
"Apartheid is apartheid," he says. "Israel's policies and actions clearly fit the definition. So, I put the speech on the Internet, and the students at Berkeley picked it up. It took off from there."
Professor Dershowitz says there's "nothing grass roots" about the growing campaign, and that Professor Boyle is a paid consultant of the Palestinian cause. Boyle acknowledges that his expenses were paid when he served as legal adviser to the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East Peace Negotiations from 1991 to1993 and to the Palestine Liberation Organization from 1987 to 1989.
Concerns about academic freedom
It was not Boyle's but Summers's speech, however, that has put the campaign in the public eye and shifted its focus. The debate is now less about whether divestment helps Palestinians and more about freedom of speech and anti-Semitism, observers say.
"[Our] original petition was answered by a counterpetition – and [that group] out-polled us by a large margin," says Patrick Cavanagh, a Harvard psychology professor who helped organize the petition drive. "Summers has brought the debate back into public focus, but it's the wrong debate. Our issue was Palestinians and human rights. We're not getting that debate."
Instead, there is debate about phenomena like the website "Campus Watch," which was posting "dossiers" on professors alleged to have made anti-Israel comments. Sponsored by the Middle East Forum, a pro-Israel research group, Campus Watch last week dropped the dossier section, which had been attacked as McCarthyism. Debate continues, too, over two Israeli professors fired from the academic boards of two British journals this spring
Meanwhile, the petition drive is popping up on more campuses. That encourages pro-Palestinian supporters even as it unsettles other students. Yet the fact that at least two university presidents have taken a strong stand against divestment encourages some.
"I think President Summers was the one who really opened the floodgates by making it OK for a university president to take a moral stand," says Rachel Roth, a sophomore at the University of Michigan and cochair of the student-run Israel Michigan Public Affairs Committee. "I have felt greatly supported by President Coleman's position, too."
She says the first national conference on the issue at Berkeley this spring brought "anti-Semitic acts and hate crimes," and is part of a growing problem on campus. Recently, at San Francisco State University, students yelled "Death to Jews!" and "Hitler should have finished the job."
Caught in the middle are students who may not approve of Israel's treatment of Palestinians but also don't support divesting from Israel.
Taufiq Rahim, a Princeton student who is a Muslim, once helped lead the charge for divestment on his campus. But in an open letter to faculty, the Canadian student renounced his involvement. What changed his mind was open, heartfelt discussion with faculty – not charges of anti-Semitism.
"Instead of working toward Palestinian freedom, divestment would only serve to isolate Israel and Palestine from each other and prevent them from coming together with fair and just positions," he says.