On Friday, Princeton University’s undergraduates voted on this question: “Shall the undergraduates call on the Trustees of Princeton University and the Princeton University Investment Company (‘PRINCO’) to divest from multinational corporations that maintain the infrastructure of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, facilitate Israel’s and Egypt’s collective punishment of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and facilitate state repression against Palestinians by Israeli, Egyptian, and Palestinian Authority security forces, until these corporations cease such activities?”
Although the question mentions Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (but not Hamas), the proposers have made it clear that their ultimate purpose is get Princeton “to divest from multinational corporations that are complicit in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip until these corporations cease such activities.” In other words, the sole reason to object to Egypt or the Palestinian Authority is that they facilitate Israeli oppression.
Fortunately, Princeton’s undergraduates resisted the star power of Cornel West and the urging of more than a few faculty members, and voted the resolution down, 1067-965. The divestment campaign at Princeton joins other recent failed efforts at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of New Mexico. But as usual, the pro-divestment side is claiming victory for having opened up a conversation that has in fact been incessant on college campuses for the past decade, when the latest effort to turn Israel into a pariah state, Israeli Apartheid Week, was launched on our campuses.
It was reasonable, after this summer’s Gaza offensive, to expect a very bad year for the treatment of Israel on college campuses. But in fact, although divestment resolutions have been passed at UCLA, Northwestern, and Stanford, among other places, divestment has done no better this year than last. It is hard to say why, but perhaps Princeton’s undergraduates and others who rejected divestment could see that they were being played for fools. Perhaps they grasped that divestment is an entering wedge for the broader boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, which puts the very right of Israel to exist in question. Perhaps they understood that activists were taking advantage of student government elections, in which few vote, to produce the appearance of a consensus against Israel on campus.
Perhaps, finally, they reacted against the barely disguised anti-Semitism that has been brought to the surface this year. As Rabbi Evan Goldman, director of Hillel at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported of the lengthy divestment debate at UCSB, one student senator spoke of “the power, money and influence of the Jewish community…. [T]here were audible gasps in the audience.” At least there were gasps. A USCB student in attendance at the same debate was disgusted by “the normalization of anti-Semitic language so casually thrown around at the meeting. In those eight hours, I was told that Jews control the government, that all Jews are rich, that Zionism is racism, that the marginalization of Jewish students is justified because it prevents the marginalization of other minority groups, that Israel sterilizes its Ethiopian women.”
It is heartening that divestment lost at UCSB, as it lost at Princeton, but disheartening that the vote—reportedly a third attempt at passing divestment at UCSB—was close. Students and faculty, even if they feel no stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, need to get off the sidelines and understand that the use of colleges and universities as weapons in a propaganda war undermines them.