ANN ARBOR, Mich. - On this legendarily activist campus, where previous generations of protesters opposed the war in Vietnam and apartheid in South Africa, students have launched a similarly ambitious movement that promises to be even more divisive: to force Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories.
Students at the University of Michigan and about 50 other campuses across the country are petitioning their schools to divest themselves of stock holdings in companies with ties to Israel to protest the country's treatment of Palestinians. The campaign is modeled on successful efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to rid university portfolios of stock in companies doing business in South Africa.
The campaign, however, has hit walls of opposition on a number of fronts: Some Jewish groups have fought back, some saying the drive is motivated by anti-Semitism or, at the least, a questioning of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. A counterpetition is circulating on some campuses and drawing more signatures than the original ones. And, uniformly, university leaders have flatly come out against disassociating their institutions from Israel.
Still, on some of the nation's most progressive campuses - from Columbia and Harvard universities to the University of California at Berkeley - divestiture from Israel has taken root as the latest cause celebre, the latest way to embrace the downtrodden and fight the powerful.
"This is a very liberal campus - it's pro-affirmative action, it's pro-human rights," says Yulia Dernovsky, a Michigan student who opposes divestiture. "The word oppression, the word occupation resonates."
She is among a small group of Jewish students who on a recent frigid night here came out to monitor a forum sponsored by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, or SAFE, which is behind the divestiture campaign on campus. The group, said one of its founders, Fadi Kiblawi, believes that divestiture would force Israel to respect the rights of Palestinians.
"In the 54 years of the history of Israel, they've never shown any intention of ending their policies," Kiblawi told the audience of about 60. "There needs to be international pressure. Israel has never done it on its own."
Intensity of rift varies
On this night, the disputes were mostly verbal - although two police officers showed up after a man attending the forum apparently tried to grab signs carried by two Jewish students. "Can we all not touch each other?" one officer asked before leaving the students to proceed with the forum.
On other campuses, there have been clashes between the two sides and ugly anti-Semitic incidents, particularly in Northern California. Earlier this year, pro-Palestinian activists yelled at a rally at San Francisco State University, "Hitler didn't finish the job," and at Berkeley shouted down Jewish students reciting the Kaddish on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Here at Michigan, the tensions have been more understated - an unknown hacker allegedly "spoofed" an e-mail address used by Kiblawi, sending university-wide e-mails under his name that contained strident anti-Israel remarks that he has disavowed. And in October, SAFE sponsored a national conference on divestiture that drew a lawsuit from two Jewish students, who argued that several speakers listed on the program held such inflammatory views that they would incite violence on campus. The suit failed, and the conference went on as planned as anti-divestiture groups protested outside.
While both sides say that they have supporters across ethnic and religious lines, the campus controversy mirrors the situation in the Middle East - students of Arab heritage on one side, Jewish on the other.
For many students who are not already interested in the Middle East issue, the campaign to divest hasn't captured their hearts or minds.
"It's in the paper all the time, but I don't hear much dialogue," graduate student Mitch Soderberg said as he ate lunch in the student union on a recent day. "Not in the physics department at least."
"I think there are a lot of people interested in it," said his lunch companion, Kathy-Anne Brickman, also a physics graduate student. "I'm just not one of them."
Previous campus causes have drawn wider support - the recent campaign against sweatshops that rallied students across the country, for example, and the earlier fight against South African apartheid.
But the attempt to draw a parallel between the way Israel treats Palestinians and the way the South African government treated blacks hasn't been very successful with most students.
"I was involved with the campaign to divest from South Africa, I was at Berkeley at the time," said Todd Gitlin, a 1960s radical at Michigan who is a writer and professor at Columbia in New York. "The arguments against that were all tactical - no one stood up to defend the principles of apartheid. That's one huge difference.
"Secondly, the equation of Israel-Palestine with South Africa doesn't bite in the way that the exponents hope," said Gitlin, a one-time president of Students for a Democratic Society, a 1960s radical youth movement begun at Michigan whose founders include Tom Hayden. "It's evident there's a lot of wrong to go around in the Middle East."
The University of Michigan has shed stock holdings twice before as a way of making a point - in 1983, from companies doing business in South Africa, and in 2000, from tobacco interests. But those were much more convincing cases, many say.
Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman has said that the current issue does not meet the same high standard that the two previous causes did.
"Both decisions to divest were reached only after sustained, campus-wide support that followed extensive research by faculty-led committees, which in turn prepared a compelling case that such investments were antithetical to the basic mission and values of the university," Coleman said in a letter to the university community several months ago. "Those conditions do not exist, and I do not plan to ask our board of regents to pursue divestment."
Origins of the call
The call to disassociate from Israel dates to a speech made two years ago by a University of Illinois professor, and the movement began picking up more steam this year. Now, both sides have mobilized - with much of the activity taking place on the Internet. A pro-Israel think tank has generated controversy with its Web site, campus-watch.org, which monitors a group of professors who it believes "fan the flames of disinformation, incitement and ignorance" with their allegedly biased views of the Middle East.
Kiblawi, who is Palestinian-American, said his group's goal at this point is simply to open a dialogue on campus about the plight of the Palestinians. If SAFE's recent campus forum, which drew about 60 students and area residents to a law school classroom, is any indication, the two sides come to the dialogue from opposite shores, speaking across a vast gulf.
One Jewish student joined two pro-divestiture speakers and a moderator, also pro-divestiture, on a panel, offering thoughts and taking pointed questions from audience members who, mostly, seemed to be taking one side or the other.
Speakers hashed out the weighty subjects with the earnestness of college students solving the world's problems. They discussed how divestment would, or would not, force changes in the Middle East. They argued about human rights, United Nations resolutions, West Bank settlements and the subject that for many is the critical point when it comes to the Middle East: terrorism.
"How will divestment end suicide bombings? How will divestment end the deaths of innocent Israeli civilians?" asked Andrew Ravin, a graduate student who is Jewish. "I don't think it can, and I don't think that is its goal."
For Ravin, the terrorism has to stop before any progress can be made toward solving the problems of the Middle East.
The pro-Palestinian students countered that Israelis wage their own violence against the Palestinians, bulldozing the homes of suicide bombers' families and killing innocent people who get caught in the cross-fire as troops seek to capture Palestinian militants.
"Terrorism is the symptom to the disease," Kiblawi said. "Occupation is the disease."
Among the few in attendance who seemed to still be wrestling with the issue was Becky Eisen, a student from Bethesda, Md., who is Jewish, yet calls the occupation "horrible."
"I think one of the biggest problems is people on campus are polarizing themselves and not allowing themselves to make way for change," Eisen said after the forum. "We need to find a common middle ground. That's basically where I'm coming from."
But her viewpoint may not be a common one. Nicholas and Margaret Steneck, married professors who jointly teach a popular class here on the history of the University of Michigan, say the split-from-Israel campaign enjoys far less unanimity than previous causes that have roused this famously political campus.
"We can agree that we're against sweatshops, and we're anti-smoking," Nicholas Steneck said, "but this issue."
"It's very divisive," Margaret Steneck said.
"More than any of the other issues," her husband said, "it has split the campus."