Did Hampshire College Divest from Israel?

This is a guest post by Ben Cohen of Z Word

This much we know. On February 7, Hampshire College, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, divested from a mutual fund which owned equity in companies that do business with Israel. What we don’t know is whether the decision to divest was specifically triggered by Israel-related concerns, or whether it was the consequence of general guidelines on ethical investment. A Palestine advocacy group on the Hampshire campus says, emphatically, that it was the former; in that, and in nothing else, they are in agreement with Alan Dershowitz. The college authorities, however, are insisting upon the latter interpretation.

It would appear that both parties are right. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) can certainly make the case that it was their petition which triggered the review of the college’s investments and that, consequently, their divestment campaign has triumphed. Equally, the fact that 200 companies were found to be in violation of the college’s investment guidelines – SJP identified only six, because their sole concern is divestment from Israel – bolsters the case of Hampshire’s Board of Trustees that “the decision expressly did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country.”

The Trustees decree that “no other report or interpretation” of the divestment decision aside from their own is valid hasn’t exactly nixed SJP’s ardor. The group maintains that in the eight months prior to the February 7 decision, only the six Israel-related companies they fingered were in the frame. The other companies, SJP says, were hastily added in a bid to prevent the decision being described as divestment from Israel.

Hampshire’s Trustees have not directly responded to this particular charge. Yet this interesting morsel tucked into the middle of a JTA report, if correct, rather the punctures SJP’s spin on events: “Three of the six companies failed a screen for socially responsible investing based on their sales of military equipment, employee safety record and other violations, according to a spokesman. Two of the companies named by the student group – Motorola and Terex – passed the screen, the spokesman said. A sixth company, United Technologies, was unlisted.”

One could spend days going through the inconsistencies in each side’s position. Why, for example, did the Trustees, in their statement of clarification, namecheck SJP and its antics if the group had nothing to do with the decision on the mutual fund? Why did they not just announce a review of the mutual fund in line with the ethical investment guidelines? What on earth does SJP mean when it calls for divestment to include “Palestinian organizations or groups” involved in targeting civilians? And why, then, does it only mention by name those companies with a stake in Israel? Come to think of it, when SJP talks about the goal of an “end of the occupation as defined by UN resolutions,” without specifying which resolutions, are they not tempting even the most ardent advocate of student involvement in the design of higher education to scream, “get back in the f**king classroom!?”

And yet, what’s at issue here is not the detail of who said what. Nor is it really about whether a decision like this – or ten similar ones – will make a significant difference to either Israel’s economy or the willingness of companies to conduct business there; a great deal more punishment will be needed to dent an economy which, despite having been subjected to two wars in the last three years, still merits an ‘A’ credit rating from Standard and Poor’s.

Rather, it is about what boycotts have always been about: symbolism.

Not for nothing does SJP remind the world of Hampshire College’s record in divesting from South African apartheid. Now they can portray a seamless link between Afrikaner domination back then and Zionist occupation in our own time. A message of support from Archbishop Desmond Tutu certainly reinforces this, as does the applause of the usual suspects – among them Noam Chomsky, Cynthia McKinney, Naomi Klein and the unctuous anti-Zionist blogger Philip Weiss.

What we have here is an echo chamber, morally and sonically insulated from precisely those accusations about double standards – the treatment of student dissidents in Iran and Syria, for example – which Alan Dershowitz elucidates. Hence, I confess a certain sympathy with Dershowitz’s determination to show Hampshire’s faculty and student body that “bigotry has its cost.” At the same time, I would point the Hampshire Trustees in the direction of another US college, and another project, which sets a much more productive example.

Bard College, another upscale institution in the American northeast, has embarked on a joint venture with the Palestinian Al Quds university to bring the traditions of open thought and academic rigor to a region which desperately needs them. Liberals and leftists should appreciate that this initiative is not about petrodollars; Bard President Leon Botstein told the New York Times that “he was glad not to be following the example of larger universities building campuses in rich Persian Gulf emirates, a development that he said was ‘like investing in Monte Carlo or Liechtenstein to develop Europe.’” Supporters of Israel anxious about boycott and divestment initiatives gaining traction should be soothed by Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian philosopher who is President of Al Quds, readily stating that “we do a lot of projects with Israel.”

It is, as Botstein would seem to be suggesting, an open market. Hampshire College could probably find itself a niche with both Israeli and Palestinian institutions. If only its Trustees would put their minds to it, this divestment spat, and all the infantile gestures around it, would be safely in the past.