February 19, 2009
Pro-Palestinian students, college debate divestment
Hampshire College insists it has not divested from Israel, but try telling that to pro-Palestinian students at the liberal arts school in Massachusetts or Israel defender Alan Dershowitz.
Students for Justice in Palestine, a student group at Hampshire, issued a statement last week claiming victory in its campaign to convince the school to become the first U.S. institution of higher learning to divest from Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. The group also distributed an online press kit with endorsements from several prominent Israel critics, several of which mention the group’s successful campaign for “divestment from financial ties with Israel.”
Dershowitz, who has played a lead role in defending Israel in a series of campus battles across the country, has responded with calls for divestment from Hampshire College.
School officials, meanwhile, are scrambling to put out the word that both sides have it wrong. They say the Feb. 7 decision by the board of trustees to divest from a market index fund was prompted by concerns raised by the pro-Palestinian student group, but the move ultimately had nothing to do with Israel.
At issue is whether pro-Palestinian activists have crossed a significant threshold in their years long, and so far failed, campaign to convince U.S. universities to divest from Israel. The campaign has generated some headlines but produced no major victories.
In an interview Tuesday with JTA, Hampshire’s president, Ralph Hexter, said the final decision to divest from certain companies was not aimed at Israel and criticized the pro-Palestinian students for suggesting otherwise.
“I think they crossed the line of appropriate behavior,” Hexter said. “I think they were attempting to speak for the college.”
What’s not in dispute is that the decision followed a lengthy campaign by the pro-Palestinian students that focused on six companies deemed to be supporting or profiting from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The student group targeted United Technologies, Caterpillar, Motorola, Terex, ITT and General Electric.
According to Students for Justice in Palestine, it made presentations to both the school’s investment responsibility subcommittee and the full board of trustees in May, after which the subcommittee recommended divestment from the six companies.
Hexter maintains, however, that when the recommendation came before the full investment committee, it was decided to undertake a broader screen of one of the college’s investment funds. The screen, performed by KLD Research & Analytics, found that the school was invested in more than 200 companies that violated principles of socially responsible investing, including several flagged by the students.
According to the school, however, the screen did not involve any criteria relating specifically to Israel. Instead, KLD evaluated issues relating to military weapons, employee discrimination, environmental concerns and employee safety, and also examined companies’ operations in two countries, Sudan and Myanmar.
What’s more, two of the companies named by Students for Justice in Palestine—Motorola and Terex—passed KLD’s screen, according to the college. A third company, United Technologies, was not screened because it was not part of the fund at the time.
Hexter, insisting that the decision was not a divestment from Israel, noted that the school maintains its investments in Israeli firms.
“The one thing that was quite clear in the investment committee from the start was that it was unacceptable for members to focus a decision on one area, and let me say specifically, on Israel,” said Hexter, who is on record opposing divestment from Israel.
Students for Justice in Palestine continues to dispute the college’s version of events, claiming that “the Palestine-Israel conflict was the most prominent reason behind divestment.” In a statement posted to its Web site, the group also says the administration sought its advice about which companies to avoid—a claim firmly denied by Hexter.
“SJP is disappointed that the college is choosing to shy away from the political implications of its action rather than embrace this moment,” the group said. “Regardless, a week ago Hampshire College was invested in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Today, the college is no longer complicit in the funding of this injustice.”
Ironically, Dershowitz—a Harvard Law School professor, an outspoken critic of divestment efforts and the parent of a Hampshire alumni—echoed the sentiments of Students for Justice in Palestine in accusing the college administration of not fully owning up to what it had done.
“Neither side is being forthright,” Dershowitz told JTA. “The students are overstating what happened and the administration is understating what happened.”
Dershowitz is urging divestment from Hampshire, calling it the “No. 1” college in the United States deserving of divestment because of this episode and its tolerance for an atmosphere of hostility to the Jewish state that is “poison” for pro-Israel students. Dershowitz further accused the school of issuing a “phony clarification” and trying to be all things to all people.
“They were looking for an excuse to sell the six companies without just selling the six companies,” he said.