In the recent decades of social activism on college campuses nationwide, the rallying cry frequently has been divestment. The movement, whereby groups of students around the country pressure their universities into selling shares of companies with what the groups consider reprehensible business practices, has a particularly storied past at Yale. Some attempts have been more successful than others, but all have made a common goal of modifying this University’s investment ethics.
In the mid-1980s, students pitched tents on Beinecke Plaza and mounted a successful campaign urging the Yale Corporation to suspend its relationship with companies that invested in South Africa’s apartheid system. In 1998, 50 professors and several student groups signed petitions encouraging the University to divest from its holdings in tobacco companies, but to no avail.
The newest movement gaining steam since the beginning of the school year on campuses around the country and in the past few weeks around the Ivy League suggests universities pull away from companies that invest in Israel. Roughly 400 students from 90 colleges spent the weekend at the University of Michigan discussing ways to gain support for divestment; last week, a small group of Yalies set up a table outside the post office with that aim in mind.
Some date this particular campaign back to a 2000 University of Illinois professor’s speech arguing the living conditions of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories could be improved through a divestiture movement similar to the one that helped bring an end to apartheid. Many have approached the campaign with the deeply flawed notion that the current situation in Israel is analogous to the one in South Africa 20 years ago.
If — or more likely, when — the proposal finds support with a larger group of students and faculty at Yale, it will likely be a quieter movement and hopefully a more responsible one. Recently, students nationwide in favor of divestment have hurled accusations of racism at the Israeli government and Zionists around the world; students opposed have hurled accusations of anti-Semitism right back.
Investment ethics debates at Yale have been fairly tame in recent years, conducted mostly within the confines of Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility. Even so, it will be important in coming weeks that students and faculty on both sides of the issue focus on the facts and avoid the ad hominem, so distinguishing themselves from many other college communities right now.
It is not only historically inaccurate but also deliberately irresponsible to use the same rhetoric to criticize Israel as was used to criticize apartheid. On the other side, it is important to recognize that to be in favor of divestment — even to be anti-Israel — is not necessarily to be anti-Semitic.
There’s no reason this debate needs to be kept quiet or this issue ignored. Indeed, they shouldn’t be. But only if students and professors can avoid the rhetoric of old paradigms, convenient and dangerous because they stir up emotion, will the debate at Yale be productive and the resolution swift.