Wednesday 15 May 2002
Israeli Professors Join U.S. Call For Ban On Investments
by Charlotte Hall
Source: Palestine Chronicle
May 15 2002 - A Boston-based petition calling for divestment from Israel is the latest measure designed to mimic the international isolation of South Africa under apartheid rule in an Israeli setting.
Five professors and senior lecturers at Israeli universities have joined faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in signing a petition urging the two Boston-based academic institutions to withhold investments in Israel and from American companies that sell arms to Israel.
The petition, signed by 107 faculty members and 136 students at the two universities, calls on MIT and Harvard to "divest from Israel, and from U.S. companies that sell arms to Israel" until Israeli armed forces withdraw from the occupied territories, among other conditions. The campaign follows other recent initiatives by academics, including a petition by Israeli academics supporting soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories and a petition initiated in London, but signed by a small number of Israeli academics, calling for special privileges from the European Community to be withdrawn from Israeli universities. Counter-petitions have followed.
The Harvard-MIT petition Web site details Harvard investments in companies with interests in Israel, including $154.8 million in General Electric, $78.2 million in Johnson & Johnson, and $50.1 million in Intel, totaling $614.7 million. The universities should "use their influence - political and financial" to pressure the U.S. and Israeli governments "to respect the human rights of the Palestinians," the petition states.
The Princeton Initiative
A similar initiative, entitled "End the Israeli occupation: Divest Now," was launched at Princeton University, New Jersey in March. The campaign homepage quotes both Archbishop Desmond Tutu comparing current events in the territories to South Africa under the apartheid regime and Professor Jacob Katriel of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology describing the petition as "in no way" anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. "As such," the quote continues, "it allows people such as myself, who see a just and democratic Israel ... as a desirable objective in which they have personal stakes, to share your concern."
Four other Israeli academics, all with links to Princeton, have signed a statement supporting the petition, which reads: "The worldwide Anti-apartheid campaigns of boycott and divestment played a critical role in dismantling the former criminal apartheid regime in South Africa. You in the divestment campaign in Princeton may feel small and isolated. Allow us to remind you that the divestment movement against South Africa's apartheid started precisely in the same way, with small campus groups applying democratic pressure on their local authorities."
Israeli supporters of the two petitions reported having received hate mail since signing up. Debate has also been raging in an unedited English-language e-mail group, known as the "academia list," which circulates among some faculty staff in Israel. Linguistics professor Rachel Giora, who signed up to the Princeton initiative, says she has received letters suggesting she be fired from her post at Tel Aviv University. She describes the reaction of some of her colleagues to her support of the petition as "very hostile." Following "the example of white South Africans" who called for a boycott against their own country during apartheid rule, Giora says she joined the American initiative as she believes it will be more effective than local Israeli protests in pressuring the Israeli government to change its policies. "The harm I am inviting [upon Israel] is only temporary and may save us from much greater harm" in the long-term, she added.
`A Symbolic Act'
Professor of linguistics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Nomi Shir, says she signed up to the Harvard-MIT initiative, in the hope it will have a similar impact to boycotts against South Africa under apartheid. Even though Shir views the petition as a "symbolic act," which she does not believe will ever be implemented, she says she would not sign if she "didn't think [divestment] should happen." She distinguished between the divestment petition and the "academic boycott" petition signed by Israeli faculty members, which she opposes.
MIT graduate and mathematics professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Emmanuel Farjoun, signed up to support his former American colleagues. Although complete divestment from Israel is unlikely, he says, a reduction in economic investment into Israel is realistic. One of the initiators of the Israeli academics' petition supporting conscientious objectors, Farjoun says he supports all forms of nonviolent, international pressure on Israel to give up "its addiction to the occupation," be it "commercial, diplomatic or even educational." Israel, he adds, should be made into an "international pariah."
Describing the call for divestment as a "gimmick" and a "red herring," Technion chemistry professor Jacob Katriel says the petition is unlikely to have a "concrete effect." But he expressed his support for the Princeton divestment initiative because he believes it will draw more international attention to Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza and may sway public opinion. He regretted, he added, that "other options [for protest] have failed us."
In addition to receiving mail describing him as a "self-hating Jew" and suggesting he resign, Katriel says a colleague made threats to deprive him of his rights within the Technion's faculty club. The threat, says Katriel, was later withdrawn when the colleague understood that the petition signed by Katriel was not the one calling specifically for restrictions on funding for Israeli universities. None of the Israeli supporters of the two divestment petitions reported any reaction from their respective university management about their actions.
A spokesman for Hebrew University of Jerusalem said its staff "can sign whatever they want," as long as it is in a private capacity, a sentiment echoed by Rector Shimon Yankielowicz of Tel Aviv University. Prof. Avishay Braverman, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told Anglo File the university is "by definition a pluralistic body that respects the rights of everyone to express their opinions," but stated that the Harvard-MIT petition signed by one of his staff "is against the spirit of academic freedom." He added the university is "proud" of its academic relations with Harvard and MIT and "rejects any attempt to compromise them."
A spokesman for the Technion also underlined the right of faculty members to state their private opinions in a non-university frameworks, but expressed "sorrow" that a faculty member had chosen to adopt a "one-sided opinion with regard to political affairs."