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.

Getting Started

Word has it that the odd crowd of Israel-dislikers who tend to perpetually form groups that contain the words “Peace” and “Justice” in their titles has decided to strap electrodes onto the neck bolts of divestment one more time, not realizing that even Frankenstein’s Monster has a shelf life.

To date, these efforts have amounted to students holding press conferences at Hampshire College to announce that the school has divested from Israel when it hasn’t, and other students barricading themselves into the cafeteria at NYU until forced out by school security (and personal hygiene).

As these examples attest, divestment advocates have had a pretty tough time of it since 2004 when divestment was riding high in the Presbyterian, Methodist and other Mainline Protestant churches, and divest-from-Israel campaigns were cropping up in universities, municipalities and unions across the country. Today, the “movement” is pretty much in ruins. Again and again, the churches have voted down divestment by overwhelming majorities, and not one school or city has sold a single share of stock related to the Jewish state.

Still, it is clear that the guys and gals intent on beating this dead horse have no intention of giving up, and the tactics they are choosing (such as building take-overs, which follow similar activities on UK college campuses last year) are getting aggressive and louder. What better time, then, to bring some background, perspective and (I hope) insight and humor into what might unfold on campuses this year with regard to the divestment issue.