It doesn’t always take much to spark a campus protest. Take the University of Texas, for example.
In April, a forum on the Middle East crisis hosted by a UT student organization, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, featured Ali Abunimah, a co-founder of “The Electronic Intifada” Web site and a frequent critic of Israeli and U.S. policies. His remarks wound up in the April 16 edition of the Daily Texan student newspaper.
“There is an inability for the U.S. to deal with the objective facts,” he was quoted as saying. “Five times as many Palestinians have been killed than Israelis.”
Inspired by Abunimah’s speech, as well as a growing national student movement calling for universities to stop investing in companies that do business in Israel, a handful of UT students formed the Students for Justice in Palestine in July to gather signatures demanding that UT divest its funds of companies making money in Israel.
“So far, we have collected between 500 and 700 signatures,” said UT senior Motaz Al Hasan, a member of the group.
Abunimah, a University of Chicago researcher, said last week that he hopes he “inspired and motivated” the students, although “it’s not my normal practice to go to students and say, ‘You should do this and this.’ “
Activists say this is a textbook example of how to make Israeli divestment a hot-button issue on the campuses of America’s heartland, which are typically less politically active than their East or West Coast counterparts. At a recent national conference to promote the movement, speakers gave step-by-step advice on winning the hearts and minds of the public, making splashes in the media and deflecting charges of anti-Semitism.
“It’s so easy to get a campus headline about divestment,” a Berkeley, Calif., political activist who would identify himself only as Blaine told a crowd of students at the conference, held at the University of Michigan.
Holding up a copy of a student newspaper from Detroit’s Wayne State University, Blaine said, “A tiny group of people at Wayne State said, ‘Let’s divest’ and got 50 to 70 signatures. They had major headlines day after day for three days. You can do that on your campus.”
Critics contend that even though the divestment petitions that have surfaced at dozens of campuses this year may seem to be grass-roots efforts, idealistic students are being cynically manipulated.
Campus protests against the possibility of U.S. military assaults on Iraq are likely to strengthen the divestment movement, supporters and critics agree.
The movement claims to be trying to end “Israeli apartheid” of Palestinians, a phrase that recalls the successful South Africa divestment drives that swept U.S. campuses in the 1980s and ’90s. Critics are frequently dismissed as opponents of academic freedom who are afraid of allowing rational discourse on alleged Israeli oppression.
“It’s a great thing that this conference is taking place,” Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told students at the Michigan rally. He told students to “aggressively” deny charges of anti-Semitism when interviewed by journalists.
“We are going to have a nice, dignified, scholarly investigation of Israel’s racist practices… . The only threat of violence is from those beshawled jokers who greeted me with hosannas,” said Ibish, who drew howls of laughter for his reference to the half-dozen orthodox Jews who came from New York to peacefully protest.
The students at the Michigan conference did not invite speakers with opposing views and misrepresented United Nations resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawals from occupied territories. Proposals by some students to soften the organization’s positions - that it should not judge suicide bombings and that Zionism is equivalent to racism - were rebuffed, though some students argued they should be approved simply to get “better PR.”
“This is an anti-America movement and has solidarity with terrorists, which I consider very dangerous,” said David Horowitz, a leading university radical in the 1960s who has since become a prominent critic of student and faculty leftists.
“It’s a movement to destroy Israel, and there are always unwitting people who go along and believe slogans,” said Horowitz, who has started an ad campaign to try to debunk the divestment movement in college newspapers.
Divestment petitions at dozens of other universities - including Harvard, Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley - have drawn accusations of anti-Semitism throughout the year, most notably from Harvard professor Lawrence Summers.
Students have identified many major U.S. companies as having business interests in Israel. They run the gamut from defense giant Lockheed Martin to the fast-food chain McDonald’s. Students have said Harvard has $ 615 million invested in such companies and the University of Michigan has $ 155 million invested.
Texas’ multibillion-dollar Permanent University Fund, which helps finance the UT and Texas A&M systems, has at least $ 90 million invested in companies identified by student groups as doing business with Israel, said Christy Wallace, spokeswoman for the University of Texas Investment Management Co., which oversees the endowment.
Wallace said Texas law precludes the selling of public investments “to advance social or political purposes.”
Texas universities were noted for a dearth of student activism even during the tumultuous 1960s, and there was little activism in the state during the South Africa divestment movement.
“Progressive students are afraid to speak out in Texas,” said Kathy Goodwin, a University of Houston student who heads a campus National Organization for Women group.
A petition drive has not been started at UH, but Goodwin and several Muslim students interviewed who oppose Israeli policies said there is no reason that one could not.