Students and faculty at a growing number of universities are joining a fledgling movement to pressure schools into selling their holdings in companies that do business in Israel, prompting a counter-campaign among Jewish groups that consider the effort part of a creeping tide of anti-Semitism on campus.
The divestiture drive is designed as a way to protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians, but Jews and others say that by adopting tactics used to oppose apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s, the movement not so subtly paints the Israeli government as racist and oppressive.
"What this movement does is compare Israel to South Africa. That is hideous," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "There is a greater tolerance on the college campus than elsewhere for expressions of anti-Semitism."
Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, speaking at a university prayer address last month, warned of an "upturn in anti-Semitism" on campus and across the globe. "Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent," Summers said, offering the growing Israel divestiture movement as a prime example.
This week the American Jewish Committee published a statement in the New York Times decrying what it called the increasing number of incidents in which Jewish students faced intimidation on campus for vocally supporting Israel.
"In the past few months, students who are Jewish or supporters of Israel -- Zionists -- have received death threats and threats of violence," read the letter, which was signed by 309 college presidents. "Property connected to Jewish organizations has been defaced or destroyed. Posters and websites displaying libelous information or images have been widely circulated, creating an atmosphere of intimidation."
Supporters of the divestiture movement bristle at the suggestion that their campaign contributes to an atmosphere of anti-Semitism on campus, saying the charge not only slanders them but also stifles a crucial debate about Israeli policy toward Palestinians.
"This charge of anti-Semitism is utter nonsense. It is really a form of paranoia to deflect attention away from Israeli human rights abuses and war crimes," said Edward Said, a Columbia University English professor who helped launch a divestiture campaign at the school. "Israel has been in occupation of Palestinian territory for 35 years. . . . In light of that, a divestment campaign modeled on the campaign in South Africa seems to be the mildest and most decorous of responses."
Arab American activists said that incidents of taunting and other harassment of Jews pale in comparison to the wave of anti-Muslim incidents -- and suspicion -- that has swept campuses since last year's terrorist attacks in the United States. Moreover, they say, criticism of Israel, particularly amid the free flow of ideas that is characteristic of most college campuses, does not equate to anti-Semitism.
"It is perfectly scandalous that the American Jewish Committee would organize a petition about harassment of students on campus regarding Middle East issues which only mentions Jewish students as victims," said Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "What you're looking at is a coordinated, systematic campaign to delegitimize criticism of Israel on American campuses."
Some 400 activists from 90 campuses around the country are converging on the University of Michigan for the Second National Student Conference on the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, a three-day meeting that begins today and is aimed at expanding the Israel divestiture movement
"We plan to brainstorm on ways to spread our message," said Fadi Kiblawi, a Kuwaiti-born senior who grew up in St. Louis and is the lead organizer of the conference. "If you look at a map of the occupied territories, it looks like apartheid South Africa. Palestinians can't travel from one place to another without heavy restrictions. And all the laws they face are predicated on the fact that they are not the correct religion."
The divestiture conference has touched off an emotional debate on the Ann Arbor campus, where late last month anti-Semitic e-mails were sent to students and faculty. The message was packaged as a conference invitation, but investigators have determined that it was not sent from the Michigan campus or by the student group that organized the conference.
A Jewish student group filed a lawsuit earlier this week in an unsuccessful effort to block the event. Several hundred students, some waving Israeli flags and wearing T-shirts emblazoned "Wherever We Stand, We Stand With Israel," rallied Thursday in opposition to the conference. A similar demonstration is scheduled for tomorrow.
"It is very clear to everyone that Israel is not an apartheid state and divestment is a ploy to get people to attempt to destroy Israel from an economic standpoint," said Rachel Roth, a University of Michigan sophomore who helped organize the Thursday rally. "These are just fallacious claims being made about Israel."
The divestiture campaign was ignited by a 2000 speech by University of Illinois law professor Francis A. Boyle, who said the conditions of Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied territories could be changed by a divestiture movement similar to the one that crippled the economy of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, leading the government to abandon the racist policy.
"It is clear to me we have an apartheid practice being inflicted on the Palestinians," said Boyle, who served as an unpaid legal adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace talks between 1991 and 1993. "If the situation is the same as it was in South Africa, the remedy should be the same as well."
Opponents argue that with its democratic government and multiethnic population, Israel is by far the most open society in the Middle East and should not be compared to South Africa.
Still, the divestiture strategy has been endorsed by the likes of Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu. Students and faculty at the University of California at Berkeley were among the first to join the campaign last spring. Now the effort is gaining support at many of the nation's most prestigious universities, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Cornell.
In all, Boyle estimates, the campaign is in various stages of development on about 40 campuses, but so far no schools have moved to shed their holdings in firms that do business in Israel.
As the campaign has spread, so, too, has opposition to it. Nearly 6,000 students and faculty have signed petitions against the movement at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. Thousands of others have signed a similar petition at Berkeley.
Meanwhile, a pro-Israeli think tank last month launched a Web site, Campus Watch, that critiques how Middle Eastern studies are taught at U.S. colleges and universities. Among other things, the site features information on professors it says have offered distorted views of trends in the Middle East or have made anti-Semitic remarks in class.
"We think there is a problem on campus when it comes to Middle East studies, and we see consequences flowing from this," said Daniel Pipes, director of Middle East Forum, which runs the site. "We are also concerned about the focus on Israel and hostility toward Israel, which would feed into the divestment movement."
The work of Campus Watch has angered many professors and others sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, who see it as another vehicle for quelling debate about Israeli policy.
Richard A. Falk, a Princeton University professor who supports the divestiture campaign, said criticism of the effort as anti-Semitic "makes people hesitant to express their real beliefs, because they feel they will be unintentionally misunderstood or deliberately misunderstood. That has an extremely chilling effect on people's willingness to express their views."