Late in March, after a lengthy and dramatic debate, the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government voted against a resolution urging the University to divest from companies allegedly connected to Israeli activities in the West Bank. Much as one hates to give the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement credit, they have clearly learned a lesson from the defeat: don’t get involved in a debate with your opponents.
They are now applying that lesson at Cornell University, where, as William Jacobson has reported, a similar divestment resolution comes up for initial discussion by the Student Assembly on Thursday. The discussion is so last minute an addition that it was not included in an agenda for the meeting circulated on Tuesday and appeared only on a revised agenda issued at 8:42 P.M. that evening. So the resolution’s opponents have less than 48 hours to prepare.
Proponents of divestment understand that in the course of a prolonged debate, it is hard to keep one’s mask on. Some of their supporters may forget that the movement isn’t supposed to be anti-Semitic and, as they reportedly did at the University of Michigan, refer to their opponents as “kikes” and “dirty Jews.” That makes it much harder to pass a resolution.
Proponents of divestment also understand that the more that people learn about their movement; the less likely they are to support it. It is a standard and good argument against them that they focus solely on Israel and ignore the abysmal human right records of other nations, like China, with which their colleges and universities have extensive dealings. But the argument acquires a little more force when one goes over to the blog of Students for Justice in Palestine-Cornell, which is evidently behind the resolution. The most recent entry, on Syria, literally does not mention the crimes perpetrated by the Assad regime, preferring to place responsibility for the violence in Syria squarely on the shoulders of “the U.S. and its client states.” If “a humanitarian intervention is needed,” the authors argue, “it should be through the revocation of the corporate charters of the criminal U.S. arms conglomerates.” In short, SJP-Cornell is not so much ignoring human rights violations as proposing that they would not take place if we would only join the fight against the U.S. and Israel, its partner in imperial crime.
If that kind of thing gets out, one might lose even the kind of liberal who supports a targeted boycott of West Bank settlement products. Even those who think Israel is deeply at fault, after all, are unlikely to think that they benefit from association with the view that Obama is a bigger villain than Assad. Such a liberal may fear that even a resolution narrowly drafted to oppose “the occupation,” rather than the very existence of Israel, will, if passed, be viewed as an endorsement of the odious world view of its leading proponents.
Perhaps most of all, proponents of divestment worry about what happens when the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has a chance to be heard, as it did during the Michigan debate, courtesy of historian Victor Lieberman. At that debate, the BDS line, according to which Israel has always been the aggressor, was exposed as propaganda, and student representatives, who may already have been thinking that student governments ought not to make Mideast policy, voted 25-9 against the resolution.
So I commend the proponents of divestment for realizing that if they want their resolution to pass, they had better ram it through as quickly as possible. But their cleverness does not end there. As Jacobson explains, the period during which the resolution will be discussed on campus coincides with the period during which many Jewish students will be out of town celebrating Passover.
This resolution will be much easier to pass without the Jews around.