Friday, February 13, 2009

Palestine Solidarity Update: War of Words on Investments in Israel

War of Words on Investments in Israel

A pro-Palestinian student group and Hampshire College disagreed Thursday as to whether the Massachusetts institution’s withdrawal of investments from an index fund represented a rebuke of Israel, and a major first for the divestment movement. Any hope that this might stay a quiet campus disagreement — probably a slim hope given the topics involved — has evaporated with dueling press releases, media coverage from the Middle East and the entry of Alan M. Dershowitz into the dispute.

Dershowitz, a Harvard University law professor and well known supporter of Israel, threatened to unleash a campaign against the college, and issue a call for donors to withhold contributions, unless Hampshire resolves any ambiguities and clearly states that it rejects student efforts to divest from the Jewish state. “What they have to do is make it impossible for the students to plausibly be able to declare victory,” said Dershowitz, whose son went to Hampshire.

“They want me on their side, they want the anti-Israel students on their side, they want everybody on their side. But unfortunately the divestment campaign is a zero-sum game. Both sides can’t win, and Hampshire let the anti-Israel students win and they will pay a heavy price for that. Unless they withdraw it, they withdraw it and they make it clear they have rejected these efforts to divest from Israel.”

The students dominated the headlines on Thursday when, in a press release, the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter hailed Hampshire as “the first of any college or university in the U.S. to divest from companies on the grounds of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” The student group celebrated having successfully pressured the college to divest from six companies with connections to Israel’s military operations in the West Bank and Gaza.

Hampshire officials acknowledge they initiated a review of the specific State Street fund in question in response to a petition from Students for Justice in Palestine. However, Hampshire maintains that it transferred assets to another fund after finding much broader violations of its policy on socially responsible investing, including unfair labor policies, environmental abuse, military weapons manufacturing and unsafe workplace settings.

In all, Hampshire says it found more than 200 companies in the fund that fell short of its standards. “[T]he decision expressly did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country,” the college’s statement says.

As an analogy, Ralph Hexter, Hampshire’s president, said, “There might be a court case that the higher court sustains the ruling but the principles are entirely different. Not that we thought that way. This is not a policy decision; I can’t say that enough. The investment committee expressly rejected the idea that we were acting in any way [in regards to] a certain country or region or political position, but rather because it came to our attention — it happened to be through this [Students for Justice in Palestine] petition — that this fund contained many, many companies that were problematic, in a whole host of regions.”

Hexter acknowledged the court analogy was likely imperfect, and one imperfection is that when a higher court upholds a lower court’s ruling, but for different reasons, judges usually go out of their way to make the distinctions clear.

That’s not quite what happened at Hampshire, at least initially. In the group’s press release, Students for Justice in Palestine quote Hexter as saying, during the February 7 board of trustees meeting when this was decided, “that it was the good work of SJP that brought this issue to the attention of the committee.” Hexter said the quote was accurate.

“What I referred to was their good work at doing undergraduate-level research and bringing it to the appropriate subcommittee of the board. It didn’t rely on their work, but it’s the kind of praise that I think you give to students for using the processes of the college,” Hexter said. While he expressed disappointment in the students disseminating “such a partial and biased version” of what happened, he also pointed out, “Remember, they are students.”

“We reject in our actions any singling out of a country, we thought that’s entirely inappropriate and it never occurred to us that this would be taken as divestment from Israel because that wasn’t the question before us,” said Hexter. “We’re in an awkward position that people are claiming falsely what this is and all I can do is deny it.... I can tell you personally as president that I am definitely opposed to divestment from Israel.”

In 1977, Hampshire was the first college to call for divestment in South Africa.

Matan Cohen, a spokesman for Students for Justice in Palestine Hampshire College, and a sophomore, said of Hampshire’s written clarification, “I will use the word curious but I would not say I’m surprised.... We all know how much pressure will be put on Hampshire to take this decision back.”

“We’ve identified, actually in fact and it’s true, other companies that do horrible things,” said Cohen. “They had to divest from all 200 to divest from these six.... How can you say it’s not about this area if you say first of all that it was SJP’s good work that brought your attention [to the fund]?” asked Cohen, a student from Israel.

“I think that Hampshire divested because we have pushed them. The majority of students on the campus support it, and we pushed them to make this decision and to divest from this occupation. It’s a shame to me that they’re not willing to fully own it.”

Dershowitz said of Hampshire, “They found an easy way out. ‘Yeah, we’ll divest from the six companies but we’re also going to divest from 200 others’.... Not a single Fortune 500 company would pass muster under Hampshire policies.”

“I think it’s a very simple story ... a cowardly college administration that doesn’t want to say no to anybody, wants to talk out of both sides of its mouth to me and out of another side of its mouth to anti-Israel students,” he said. “They were looking for an excuse to be able to divest from those six companies but to do it in a broader way, but they were under-inclusive. They didn’t look at the rest of the portfolio.”

Hexter said Hampshire examined only one fund because officials had reason to believe it was problematic. Also at the February 7 board meeting, the board of trustees voted to revise its 1994 policy on socially responsible investing — after that’s completed, Hexter said, the review will continue. “We would then expect to have a continual methodology of making sure that all of our investments are always in compliance with our policies. It’s not good management to have this out of whack.”

Students for Justice in Palestine waited until Thursday to publicly declare victory in part so it could collect endorsements from prominent figures. As one example, David Theo Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, is quoted in the group’s online press kit as saying, “I fully endorse the reasonable and courageous decision of Hampshire College’s Board of Trustees to divest all investments that support the Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people.”

In an interview Thursday, Goldberg said, “It’s commendable that even at the wider level, they would have taken a stance against companies doing business with repressive forces in questionable, unjust, unethical ways. I think that the companies doing business with the repressive forces in Israel and Palestine should be included.” But, he said, “I’m for divesting in the other 194 if they engage in unjust activities in other parts of the world.

“That’s not lacking cleverness given the political climate, to go for the broader general principle as a way of getting at the particular. Whether it’s a way of getting at the particular or not that’s driving it is an open question, obviously subject to debate by those more privy to the decision than I.”

— Elizabeth Redden

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