Kenneth Waltzer

University Leaders Should Speak against BDS Disinvestment

In what must seem another déjà vu moment at the University of Michigan, after the failure of anti-Israel divestment campaigns during 2014 and 2015, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) — the university’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group aligned with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement — has introduced yet another divestment motion in the student government on the Ann Arbor campus.  The Resolution for the University of Michigan to Divest from Socially Irresponsible Companies that Violate Palestinian Human Rights was introduced on November 7th and likely will be voted at a student government general assembly on November 15.

The motion calls on the student government to demand that the university divest from four companies — Boeing, Group4Securicor (G4S), Hewlett-Packard (HP) and United Technologies – which, the motion alleges, supply weapons and equipment to Israel’s military. The debate on the motion will likely be divisive: the 2014 vote came after six hours of debate and was taken by secret ballot because students feared threats to their personal safety; the 2015 vote came after four hours of debate.  A new debate is likely to be accompanied by new threats and intimidation by pro-Palestinian forces.

The motion cites 30 other universities where students have called for divestment, but fails to mention that not a single one of these universities have enacted such demands. Why then do students, knowing their proposals will be rejected by officials, continue to press for divestment? Because the meaning of the activity is not in the winning but in the doing. The motion is another BDS effort to use the university as a megaphone to spread a narrative of Israeli and corporate malevolence and Palestinian victimhood. The purpose is to delegitimize Israel.  And the by-product is to divide the university, stir acrimony, and promote antagonism among and between students.


The motion asks the student government to call on the UM Regents to appoint a committee to investigate the ethical and moral implications of investments made in these companies.  It also requests that UM asset managers divest, as the committee deems it appropriate, as soon as divestment can be accomplished without injury to the university’s assets and investment strategies.

How will university leaders respond?  President Mark Schlissel is on record as opposed to BDS and efforts to blunt academic freedom. He has also visited Israel and met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.  Perhaps he is aware that many other university leaders over the past few years have responded by speaking out against such divestment motions and in timely ways to head off or influence divestment votes.  It is to be hoped that President Schlissel will act similarly. Otherwise UM is trapped in another annual kabuki theater about Israel-Palestine which, as a former student has written, creates “a campus community polarized and paralyzed by a global political issue that has little to do with life in Ann Arbor.”

At UCLA, in March 2015, as one example, Chancellor Gene Block said he thought the effect of BDS at the university had been “corrosive.” He observed that the focus on a single country “is isolating to many of our students. It’s divisive. And that divisiveness has created tensions that certainly weren’t here maybe a decade ago. That has been a challenge for our students.”

At the University of Minnesota in March 2016, President Eric W. Kaler spoke out against a student divestment vote, which helped defeat the motion.

“The University does not endorse measures advocated in the SJP resolution, which has been offered in support of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. The BDS Movement, while not directly mentioned in the resolution, has called for a comprehensive academic, cultural, economic and consumer boycott of Israel. In general, our university should be wary about such boycotts, given our core values of academic freedom and our commitment to the free exchange of ideas, uncertainty about the impact of such efforts, and concerns that we may be unfairly singling out one government and the citizens of the country in question….”

At Portland State University in June, 2016, President Wim Wievel said that a divestment motion was ill-informed and divisive.

“I do not support this resolution because I am concerned by the divisiveness and tenor of the conversation that has taken us to this place….”

At Columbia, faculty circulated a strong petition against a Columbia Divest motion written by former law school dean David Schizer that secured 235 prominent faculty signatures honoring the university’s ties with Israel. “It would not be just or principled to respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by disengaging from Israel or from companies that do business with Israel. It would be unjust to blame only one side for this conflict, and unprincipled to single out Israel for this sanction, while maintaining ties with other nations that – unlike Israel – are undemocratic, repressive, and much less restrained in their use of force.”


Responding to a BDS divestment motion and embracing the debate it sets off also means having to confront the basic intellectual dishonesty that informs the motion.  The text of the UM divestment motion suggests that all one needs to know about Israel-Palestine is that Israel violates Palestinian rights and that corporations make profits from Israeli malfeasance.  Such views are simplistic, one-sided, and elide the role that Palestinian organizations and rejectionist thinking play in sustaining violence. The divestment motion is also cast in the frame of individuals and human rights, when what is at stake is the struggle between two peoples for sovereignty in a single land.  The divestment motion wipes away all the history and its complexity, erases it, turning the subject into a faux debate about equal treatment and equal rights.  Of course, there is no accompanying concern by SAFE for individuals and human rights under the Palestinian Authority or Hamas regimes.

The motion mentions UN while at the same time failing to acknowledge that it calls on all parties to make progress toward negotiations and a just and lasting peace.  It acknowledges “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”  Do proponents of divestment not know that secure and recognized boundaries include the right to purchase weapons and equipment for national self-defense?  Do they not know that defense of borders and surveillance of non-citizens entering the national community are appropriate, given continued violence?

Rather than advocating a one-sided BDS motion that does nothing to advance peace or security for the Palestinian people, students in SAFE could instead be hosting exploration of steps that might be taken by Israelis and Palestinians to move beyond the current stasis. Unfortunately, those are not the goals SAFE seeks to pursue in pressing divestment again at UM. Students have a right to speak their minds on divestment, but others have the right—and obligation—to criticize such speech and reveal the false mask of disinvestment for what it actually is.

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.