Jewish professors keep divestment drive alive

Jewish professors keep divestment drive alive

By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 12/21/2002

CAMBRIDGE - The national movement to pressure universities to pull their investments from Israel has been battered this year by critics who call it divisive and anti-Semitic.

But it has shown remarkable staying power in large part because of an unusual group of supporters: Jewish professors.

Hundreds of college professors nationwide have signed petitions calling for divestment from Israel, among them several dozen Jewish professors who call their signatures an act of political conscience. As the fall semester draws to a close, many have found themselves - not always purposely - becoming spokesmen for a cause that has deeply split their campuses.

”I simply couldn’t afford to sit back any longer,” said Harvard psychology professor Elizabeth Spelke, whose family has roots in Israel, and who signed the petition to protest Israel’s military crackdown on Palestinians.

Modeled on an anti-apartheid campaign that led campuses to divest from South Africa in the 1980s, the petition criticizes Israel’s actions in the occupied territories and calls on universities to sell any investments in Israel, and in companies that do business there. It has circulated at more than 50 campuses, including Harvard, MIT, Yale, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Although most university presidents have repudiated or rejected its demands, the petition has had a powerful impact on campus. It has become a flashpoint for arguments among students - particularly Jews and Muslims - and triggered a far more popular counter-petition supporting Israel.

Since they signed, Spelke and other Jewish professors have been bombarded with e-mail and letters accusing them of betraying fellow Jews and Israel, of self-loathing and anti-Semitism, and - most disturbing to some - of giving comfort to suicide bombers in Israel. Most prominently, Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers has publicly suggested that the divestment movement has anti-Semitic overtones.

Spelke and others say they see it not as a matter of religion or psychology but of conscience, and their intensely personal responses to the charges of anti-Semitism have helped keep the divestment movement alive.

”The best way we as a society can debate this is not to poke fingers - `Oh, you’re saying that because you’re anti-Semitic’ or `Oh, you’re saying that because you’re Jewish’ - but rather to evaluate the arguments straight up,” Spelke said.

Sylvain Bromberger, a noted Massachusetts Institute of Technology philosopher whose mother once edited a Zionist newspaper in Belgium and whose family narrowly escaped capture by the Nazis, became a hero to some divestment supporters this fall when he defended them in a toughly worded letter to Summers.

”They are good and courageous people, the sort of people who took great risks to save Jews during the occupation,” Bromberger wrote to Summers. ”What you insinuated about them was sheer, crude calumny. You must have known that. You must know people like them. … As a Jew, I found your statement to be slanderous. As a holder of a Harvard degree I found it embarrassing.”

Summers sent a polite reply, Bromberger said in an interview.

Summers’s spokesman, Alan J. Stone, said: ”President Summers was clear in saying that Israeli policies should be rigorously challenged. He used the phrase `anti-Semitic in effect if not intent’ to describe a range of actions from boycotts of Jewish scholars to pressure on universities to single out and ostracize Israel through divestment.”

In interviews, Bromberger, Spelke, and several other Jewish scholars who have signed the petition described themselves in similar terms: Not at all religiously devout, they feel culturally tied to Judaism. They emphasized that they signed the petition only to criticize the Sharon government, not to attack Israelis. They said they see the Sharon government as a political entity supporting a territorial occupation with new housing settlements - and some have targeted him, rather than other leaders, in part because they feel a personal affinity for the Jewish state.

”As a Jew, it’s so personally disturbing to me that this is even happening in Israel,” said Charles G. Gross, a psychology professor at Princeton University. ”I’m a little bit more concerned with social justice in Israel than in some other countries.”

While supporters of divestment cross many ethnic and religious lines, the Jewish signers of the petition have drawn critics who see psychological factors at play. Richard Landes, a Boston University historian who has signed a counter-petition supporting investment in Israel, said he believes that Jewish support for divestment is ”enabling” those who attack Israel.

”Jews are probably the most self-critical people, the most self-critical culture, historically speaking - just go back to the prophets,” said Landes, who spoke at a Harvard forum last week titled, ”How Do You Know When It’s Anti-Semitism?”

Landes said he was especially troubled that Jews would support a petition that asks nothing of Palestinians or terrorist groups, but puts the onus on Israel.

Raw emotion has marked much of the debate, and Jewish supporters of Israel have not been shy about labeling the petition as anti-Semitic.

”I don’t know if these people themselves are anti-Semitic, but Jews and non-Jews alike have a responsibility to get their facts right - Israel is under attack, and a petition that doesn’t acknowledge this but only condemns Israel is anti-Semitic,” said Asher Schachter, a Harvard Medical School instructor who is one of 439 Harvard faculty to sign an anti-divestment petition - far more than the 75 faculty at Harvard who support divestment.

This mixing of the personal and political has led to soul-searching for some of the Jewish scholars.

Sara Roy, a child of Holocaust survivors and a Middle East researcher at Harvard, has not signed the divestment petition but is seen as an ally in the movement because of a Holocaust Remembrance Lecture she gave this year and published last month. In the speech, she said: ”For my mother and father, Judaism meant bearing witness, railing against injustice, and forgoing silence. … What sort of meaning do we as Jews derive from the debasement and humiliation of Palestinians?”

Spelke said she paused for some time before signing the petition because she feared it would do more harm than good, a fear deepened by her Jewish history. Her late grandmother, Mae Barros Simon, always won their arguments about Israel by casting the Middle East conflict in personal terms, Spelke said.

”Lizzie, Israel is the land of our hopes and dreams. Every year I planted a tree there for you,” Spelke wrote in an essay, quoting her grandmother. ”How can you destroy my dream?”

Yet Spelke says she felt more connected to her Jewish roots after she signed the petition because she was no longer ”sitting around worrying, being fearful, hoping for the best, and doing nothing.”

Ken Olum, a member of the Tufts physics department who helped organize a divestment petition on campus, said he has wrestled so long with his frustrations with Israel, and with widespread Jewish support for the government there, that he has stopped identifying himself as a Jew when people discuss religion, the Middle East, or other subjects.

”The fact that a lot of people who count themselves as among the Jewish people are doing a great evil, an un-Jewish evil, has been overwhelming,” Olum said. ”The moral stakes here are too great to not take this stand.”

Patrick Healy can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/21/2002.
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