Columbia University is the latest battleground in a national drive to persuade universities to stop investing in Israel because of its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
Dueling petitions are circulating on the Internet this week on both sides of the divestiture issue.
A group of faculty members from Columbia and Barnard College launched a petition Oct. 26 calling on Columbia to use its “political and financial influence to encourage the United States to suspend military aid and arms sales to Israel.”
The petition by the Columbia/Barnard Faculty Committee on Divestment calls for a “targeted” divestment campaign against companies that manufacture and sell arms and other military hardware to Israel “until Israel complies with all relevant UN resolutions and Geneva conventions, and ends its military occupation of the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip seized since 1965.”
As of Monday, 394 signatures from faculty, students, staff, alumni and community members were listed on the Web site, columbiadivest.org.
In response, a counter petition launched last week by pro-Israel university forces at columbiadontdivest.org had garnered 5,535 signatures as of Tuesday. Half were from faculty, students, staff and alumni; the other half, about 2,664, was from “other” supporters outside the Morningside Heights community.
The counter petition, coordinated by Columbia’s Jewish chaplain and Hillel director, Rabbi Charles Sheer, condemns the divestment petition as “a one-sided attempt to punish the State of Israel.”
The committee on divestment will officially present its petition to the Columbia administration at a Nov. 13 meeting of the university’s Committee on Socially Responsible Investment.
“We the undersigned are appalled by the human rights abuses against the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government,” its petition says, citing also forced evictions and home demolitions.
The Columbia drive is employing tactics adopted last month by the National Student Conference on the Palestinian Solidarity Movement to force Israel to “end the occupation.”
The tactics of economic pressure are similar to those used against South Africa in the 1980s to force the white regime to abandon racist apartheid policies against its black population.
Among the companies identified as aiding Israel’s military actions, according to reports, are Boeing and General Electric, which help produce the Apache helicopter; United Technologies, manufacturer of the Blackhawk helicopter; and Caterpillar, which makes bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes.
The counter petition says that “To place all the blame on Israel for the current state of affairs, and to demand unilateral concessions is simply wrong. It is unethical to call upon Columbia to take actions that will disarm the state of Israel, denying it the fundamental right of self-defense.
“The petition totally ignores the Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. We are appalled that, in response to the tragic situation in the Middle East, our colleagues support such a distorted position that ignores the current and past history of this conflict, and revives rhetoric long discredited by its use among some who deny Israel’s right to exist.”
The counter petition notes that similar divestment campaigns have been fought at other major universities — Princeton, Harvard, MIT, the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania — and “were rejected by each one.”
It also cited the recent historic statement by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, who rejected the divestment campaign as “anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent.”
Rabbi Sheer said he welcomes a statement by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger and the board of trustees to reject the petition.
The rabbi said the counter petition is being circulated throughout the wider Jewish community, by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Rabbi Sheer defended going to the broader Jewish community for support because “We are a very visible campus and have an international reputation. It’s appropriate because many people are affected by Columbia — those who send their children, contributors — have a right to say we think it is wrong for you to do this.”
Harriet Mandel, JCRC’s director of international relations, sees the divestment as a community-based issue.
“There is a move on campuses across the country to politicize and delegitimize and isolate Israel and it must be opposed,” she said. “Why is Israel being singled out when there are so many types of conflicts going on in the world?”
Divestment supporter Brinkley Messick, a Columbia anthropology professor, said he is concerned about what he sees as “an unbelievable level of brutality on Palestinian civilians by the government of Israel, mainly the use of military equipment against the civilian population,” he told the school’s newspaper, the Spectator.
Anthropology professor Mahmood Mamdani said the petition is a critique of the Israeli government and not of the people of Israel. Mamdani hoped charges of anti-Semitism would not silence discussion.
But Columbia senior Ben Fishman said people should not be fooled by the call for a “targeted divestment.”
“This modification to the divestment scheme may seem only to oppose military action, but in reality the campaign is still based on a deep-seated, uncompromising ideology that does not advocate peace because it denies Israel the right to exist as a state,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Spectator.
The divestiture debate comes as reports surfaced that the university is seeking to hire Rashid Khalidi, a Middle Eastern scholar and outspoken critic of Israel.
Some Jewish leaders expressed concern Tuesday that an appointment of Khalidi, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago, to an endowed chair named for prominent pro-Palestinian Professor Edward Said may indicate where the administration stands on the divestment issue.
The critics noted that an article he wrote for the pro-Arab American Committee on Jerusalem last June compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Holocaust.
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