Academic Divestment Campaigns

As described in this (admittedly longish) backgrounder, the divest-from-Israel crowd got its first major ink in 2003-2004 when a petition signed by 1400+ students and professors at Harvard and MIT was picked up by the media as the beginning of a major anti-Israel divestment “movement” on college campuses. Given our current interactive-media age (which tends to mix up cause and effect), the publicity the Harvard-MIT petition generated stimulated similar campaigns on other campuses which the media wrapped into a single unstoppable program.

Student groups which coalesced around the divestment tactic were able to take advantage of what we call in the private sector a “low barrier of entry.” With free online petition software and the “new media” era of blogs and social networks emerging, it literally cost them nothing to start a petition-driven divestment campaign on any college campus where – as a friend once stated – you could get 200 signatures on a petition calling for the repeal of the law of gravity.

The trouble was that once these projects got started, the celebratory rhetoric of divestment campaigners (designed to create a sense of momentum which could propel a discussion of divestment to other institutions) needed to produce results. And, unfortunately for divestniks, the people making financial decisions at every university were not undergraduates, or graduate students, or tenured faculty, but grown-ups: college administrators and financial managers who had fiduciary responsibility to their institutions and enough common sense to not make sweeping financial decisions based on the latest political fad.

In truth, by the time then Harvard President Lawrence Summers took the podium at the University to denounce divest-from-Israel campaigns as “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent,” the air was already coming out of the balloon for divest-from-Israel campaigns. A counter-petition at Harvard generated over 10,000 signatures from people deploring divestment proposals, and to this date not one school has divested from a single stock from a company doing business in the Jewish state.

Given this poor track record, why are divestment projects heating up again on college campuses? Partly, it’s that “low barrier of entry” issue noted above, and partly it’s because these are tactics that have succeeded in generating publicity (albeit with no associated political impact) in the past. The fact that these campaigns are based on fantasy (as in Hampshire College, to topic of my next entry) or threats and intimidation (as in Europe) only points out that even acts of political impotence can be highly annoying, especially for those institutions who find themselves caught in the divestment cross-hairs.

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