Kenneth Waltzer
Kenneth Waltzer

University of Michigan Students Debate Divestment Again

Once again, a student group at the University of Michigan has put forth a resolution to the Central Student Government asking the university Board of Regents to divest from several companies “that violate Palestinian human rights.” This is the eleventh resolution in 15 years; all preceding attempts have been voted down or failed. Nevertheless, a vocal minority chooses again to force this issue, and the whole campus must therefore enter once more into the land of futile effort and escalated inter-group division.

Divestment resolutions have become standard in efforts by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement around the country to use universities and colleges as megaphones to broadcast a one-sided view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While some resolutions have passed select student governments, not a single university administration or board of regents has agreed to implement such a resolution.

This resolution to be voted on November 15 asks the regents to create a committee to “investigate the ethical and moral implications of our investments in the corporations Boeing, G4S, Hewlett-Packard, and United Technologies.” G4S has since been removed. A similar resolution campaign mounted last year unsuccessfully at George Washington University also targeted Boeing and Hewlett-Packard. The critical response there emphasized the failure of the resolution to recognize the right of all nations, including Israel, to act in their own self-defense. Other criticisms pointed out that a blanket corporate condemnation was inaccurate, as biometric technologies provided by Hewlett Packard would speed Palestinian passage at Israeli border checkpoints.

In such campaigns, truth is often the first casualty – supporters put forward a one-sided argument, omit important facts and context, and embrace a partisan orientation. Only this conflict, it is said, is important and requires UM action. The companies selected are also indicted as corporate monsters by virtue of their doing business in or with Israel. In the BDS-supported narrative, Israelis act badly and on behalf of evil. Palestinians do not act but are victims acted upon. The newest falsehood is that Palestinians, who are indistinguishable from Israelis in phenotype, are said to be people of color, and the passage or failure of the resolution is claimed to be a test of the University of Michigan’s commitment and welcome to students of color. With this last imaginative claim, we have entered a fictional world.

A second casualty is dialogue. Supporters of the BDS movement consistently oppose efforts to “normalize” the conflict, which means opposing any dialogue with Israelis or supporters of Israel. Usually any program involving joint work for peace is nixed. I met some students from the sponsoring organization Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (S.A.F.E.) at a teach-in I participated in at UM Friday who said they are indeed interested in dialogue. So too were some students with UM Hillel. This is truly hopeful, but at no other university has dialogue arisen out of or been sustained through a divestment campaign.

A third casualty is comity on campus, for conflict over the resolution leads directly to deepened divisions among groups of students and other members of the university community. Absent commitment to work together in real multi-group discussions or initiatives, the campus winds up more deeply divided than before.

It is easy to point out the tendentious and selective use of UN resolutions in the S.A.F.E. resolution and the lack of clarity about desired ultimate outcomes in the Middle East by the BDS-aligned group. This is not an initiative aimed at getting aid to or transforming conditions on the ground for Palestinians or beginning to end the occupation in the West Bank or Gaza; nor is it something oriented to changing incentives and conditions for both parties to re-enter negotiations. BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti have actually been quite clear in their desire that there be no Jewish state in the Middle East and their insistence that Jews have no right to be in the land or have their own state. UN Resolution 242, governing the situation since 1967, is partially understood, the campaign ignoring its clear call to support all states in the area to live in peace and security with respect to their sovereignty and territorial boundaries.

The effort by those behind the resolution to force-fit Israel/Palestine into the familiar paradigm and analogy of South African apartheid, allegedly struck down by heroic boycott action in the United States, is also a gross simplification, and allows students unfamiliar with sharp differences between Israel/Palestine and South Africa to signal their virtue by supporting divestment without real knowledge of the two cases. These are dissimilar rather than similar — one is about democratic conflict in a single polity between a minority majority and a majority minority, the other is about conflict between two peoples and national movements each seeking their own polity and group sovereignty. The analogy is wrong, malicious, and damaging to the process of seeking peace.

Let us return to the claim in the resolution that UM’s investments in companies doing business with Israel “personally impact Palestinian students at the University of Michigan,” and violate UM’s commitment to inclusive policies. “Palestinian students, as a minority group on campus, receive not the University’s full support, nor the benefits if its plan to foster a more inclusive climate, so long as a proportion of their tuition dollars is invested by the University in companies that violate Palestinian human rights in Israel.” This is overreach of the worst kind. Disagreement on investment portfolio choices in a non-political process does not mean that UM is hostile to or unsupportive of enrolled students from a specific ethnic or national group.

Finally, let us return to the wearying ubiquity of these resolutions. Again and again, student government is asked to involve itself in a polarizing issue that shifts its attentions and energies away from issues of real concern to all students, such as rising tuition and lagging financial aid. In a period when the politics of division plays well nationally, putting forward resolutions that will surely pit groups against one another on campus is perhaps not the best thing to do.

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.