Kenneth Waltzer
Kenneth Waltzer

Contra Divestment at Columbia: Invest, Don’t Divest

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), two student organizations active at Columbia University, announced in late January they are joining together to mount a divestment campaign on the campus. They are organized as Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), and they say their campaign is “embedded in the larger Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement directed against the State of Israel….”

Drawing on a tradition of moral commitment by Columbia and Barnard students to social, economic, and political justice, the student activists hope the University will divest its stocks, funds, and endowment “from companies that profit from the State of Israel’s ongoing system of settler colonialism, military occupation, and apartheid law.”

Their goal is to end institutional complicity in “global systems of oppression,” but, of course, they focus only on Israel and Palestine, not on “global systems.” At the same time, too, while stating that they are acting responsively to demands from Palestinian civil society, they depict Palestinians not as agents in history but as victims primarily, which is the modus operandi of the BDS movement.

Instead of an effort aimed at supporting human rights and working at bringing peace, the divestment campaign is another veiled BDS effort to delegitimize and demonize Israel, casting all blame on the Jewish State. Here is another opportunity (along with campaigns at Vassar, Northwestern, and Minnesota) to retail slogans about apartheid, settler colonialism, and oppression. Win or lose, they will claim victory – for the idea is not really to get universities to do anything but to create opportunities to declaim and defame. Counter organization by faculty who oppose divestment and by students who are organizing an active Invest, Don’t Divest, campaign, it is hoped, will beat back the initiative.


Two distinctive things about the divestment effort at Columbia are that it links SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace together, and will likely garner support from many other activist groups on campus. Earlier this year, a network of groups organizing around different issues was formed called the Barnard-Columbia Solidarity Network. Nearly all the groups have agreed to speak out on behalf of Palestinian rights. These include the Barnard Columbia Socialists, the Columbia Queer Alliance, No Red Tape, Student-Worker Solidarity, and the Mobilized African Diaspora.

No Red Tape, for example, an anti-sexual assault organization which campaigns among other things for a needed 24-hour rape crisis center, has said that “sexual violence is intimately connected with colonialism, imperialism and other forms of state violence,” and has claimed that Israel uses “sexual violence” as “a routine tool of oppression against Palestinian women.” Student-Worker Solidarity, a campus labor-activist group which seeks as one of its goals an on-campus minimum wage of $15 for federal work-study students, also has joined the effort, reasoning “decolonization and labor struggle cannot be separated.”

Such reaches for intersectional linkages across separate struggles – against sexual violence, for labor rights, and for other good things – are less statements of social analysis than political slogans. But they are sure to make more divisive the upcoming conflict, pitting groups against one another which otherwise might be allies. Faculty too will likely be energized and similarly divided. Columbia faculty have earlier petitioned both for and against boycott and divestment and new groups are being formed at this writing.

Asserting linkages between and among different forms of oppression do not necessarily mean that such linkages exist. The intersectionality logic rests on a broadly speculative claim: that injustices intersect even when they occur in distant places amidst different histories, contexts, and political systems and situations. It is an open question whether this logic is compelling.

For example, is the struggle for rights by African Americans in an American polity (with a Constitution) and a shared American culture both of which stress equal citizenship the same as the Palestinian struggle in a space without a shared polity or culture? Is it true that labor struggle and the struggles by two peoples for national self-determination are similar? As Cary Nelson has offered, the intersection “occurs only in the mind of the beholder or in a political manifesto.” One of the dangling questions is how much persuasive power such claims will have among students.


In thinking about divestment from companies that deal with Israel, we should explore briefly what divestment resolutions before student governments on other campuses have accomplished. Mostly, such resolutions have accomplished little. To our knowledge, not one single American campus has adopted a student-initiated (or for that matter, faculty supported) divestment initiative involving Israel during the past five-ten years of BDS agitation. Some university leaders have simply ignored student resolutions when passed. Others have prominently spoken out against permitting political, social, or ethical enthusiasms by parts of the university community shape institutional investment decisions.

This writer is not against all student enthusiasms aimed at social goals. The fossil fuel divestment campaign is an example of a possibly righteous cause, challenging and stigmatizing the business-as-usual approach of university financial committees. But BDS divestment is different: the argument rests on a one-sided political indictment of Israel and a selective reading of “oppression” completely shorn of historical context. Despite its claims, BDS also does not seek to end the ongoing occupation or to move things along to a peaceful resolution; it seeks rather to encourage the end of Israel itself.

University responses to BDS divestment initiatives have often been emphatic. In the University of California system, since 2005, the President and Board of Regents have refused to consider divestment initiatives one-sidedly focused against Israel. Yet other universities that have acknowledged student enthusiasms and embraced social responsibility have nonetheless set strict guidelines for “social responsibility” and created burdensome processes and guidelines where resolutions must overcome a continuing presumption against approval.

Mostly, university leaders have reiterated that university investment decisions are the prerogatives of trustees or regents, that institutions must follow state and federal laws and uphold fiduciary responsibilities, and that the key calculus is maximizing resources to support the primary mission(s) of the university. In fact, the presumption remains against divestment for political purposes or for the end of censuring foreign governments. This is unlikely to change. New and additional reasons against considering anti-Israel divestment motions include growing worry about their divisiveness in the life of the affected academic communities.

At Stanford in spring 2015, President John L. Hennessey appeared before the Faculty Senate and lamented that he had never seen a topic that was more divisive in the university community. Subsequently, the Board of Trustees announced that the University would not divest from certain companies operating in Israel for to do so would deeply divide the community. “The Board concluded that the University’s mission and its responsibility to support and encourage diverse opinions would be compromised by endorsing an institutional position on either side of an issue as complex as the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

At Columbia, too, the danger of heightening division in the community appears to be a great one. In recent years, where divestment campaigns have pushed forward energetically, they have stirred conflict and division so deep as to be followed afterward by up-ticks in anti-Semitic incidents, including charges against Jewish students about their fitness for university office, defacement of property, even isolated physical attacks on persons. The University of California Board of Regents is currently trying to craft a broad statement responsive to the threat of such instances on California campuses.


Finally, let us explore what many faculty opponents of divestment have made clear during recent campus campaigns. At Stanford University in March 2015, more than 150 current and emeritus faculty signed a statement criticizing the divestment campaign for its “one sided condemnation of Israel.” They characterized the campaign not as designed to open discussion on complex matters in the Middle East but as an effort “to dictate simple, outright excoriation.”

Noted historian Steven Zipperstein, the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, himself a progressive critic of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank, spoke forthrightly against a campaign that appeared to question Israel’s very legitimacy. “The proponents of divestment against Israel know well that Stanford is not going to divest from Israel,” Zipperstein said. “The actual goal is certainly not the stated goal.”

Professor Alan Fisher wrote that, while the divestment resolution “claims to focus neutrally on human rights, it repeatedly criminalizes Israeli actions by stretching, fabricating and stripping them of context…. Terry and Carol Winograd, professors emerita, rejected “BDS’s zero-sum approach. We fear that, whereas the vast majority of Americans desire a two-state solution and should be uniting to make it a reality, the BDS movement is sowing division, sapping resources….”

Pulitzer-prize winning Professor of History and American Studies, Jack Rakove, warned students to be wary about a program resting on “so many oversimplified judgments.” “Corporate villains are incidental to the deeper purpose, which is essentially to vilify and isolate Israel as a pariah state in the world.”

At Princeton, shortly after Stanford, another divestment initiative also went forward. Faculty against it attacked the double standard applied to Israel and rued the social dynamics stirred by divestment, marking people with or against divestment as insiders or outsiders rather than equal members of a shared academic community. Professor Robert George insisted, “For the sake of fidelity to their own missions, universities, at least nonsectarian universities, should avoid permitting themselves to develop orthodoxies, permitting themselves to become politicized.”.


Reviewing the current situation, faculty opposition is growing at Columbia and resembles faculty opposition organizing at Minnesota. At the University of Minnesota, faculty are already circulating a letter-petition strongly opposed to divestment. The faculty letter states: “The resolution cannot be separated from a one-sided condemnation of Israel. It is fueled not by disdain for Caterpillar or other companies cited in the petition, or even by concern for the universal defense of human rights, but by the implication that the State of Israel should not exist.”

The powerful faculty letter goes on to say: “BDS rejects any legitimate national aspiration for the Jewish people.” Faculty interpret the divestment petition as “representing [that all] Palestinians [are] living under occupation in Israel,” meaning the claim that “the entire land of Israel is occupied.” The faculty letter argues the divestment movement’s “intention is to endorse the end of the State of Israel.”

Faculty opposed to BDS at Columbia will also go on record emphatically against divestment. They will join with numerous student groups that are mobilizing Jewish and non-Jewish students against divestment. One active group is Aryeh, consisting of Jewish and non-Jewish students, and another is J Street, a liberal Jewish group Daniella Greenbaum, the president of Aryeh, says: “By generating distrust and placing the onus on one side alone, divestment [serves as] a roadblock to peace.” Aryeh’s counter-strategy involves launching an Invest in Peace campaign to energize students interested in peace, and Aryeh is already partnering with NGOs doing coexistence work in the region. J Street, too, is involved independently, having called into question whether BDS will be effective in achieving two states for two peoples.

Thus, as things appear at this time, faculty opposed to divestment will likely petition the President and the Board, and students will join the struggle and fight in student government while offering a counter campaign to invest in peace, not divest or to highlight BDS’ shortcomings. Perhaps faculty and students alike will also point out to others what the results have been of previous divestment campaigns — no real wins, no divestment, just defamation, hard feelings, and deepened community division.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.