Pro-Israel faculty and students at Princeton University were relieved after undergraduates narrowly rejected a referendum calling on the university to divest from Israel.
Balloting on the referendum, which ran April 20-22, was initiated by the Princeton Divests Coalition. The coalition includes the Princeton Committee on Palestine, as well as groups representing African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and members of the Alliance for Jewish Progressives.
The referendum called for the university to divest from corporations that “maintain the infrastructure of the Israeli occupation, facilitate Israel’s and Egypt’s collective punishment of Palestinians, or facilitate state repression against Palestinians by Israeli, Egyptian, and Palestinian Authority security forces.”
It was defeated by a vote of 52.5 percent against, 47.5 percent in favor, with a margin of 102 votes out of 2,032 cast. A graduate student vote was scheduled for April 27.
Opposition to the referendum was led by NoDivest, a student umbrella organization.
“I believe that divestment empowers extremist voices in both Israel and Palestine,” said Monmouth County native and Princeton senior Elise Backman, a student leader in the NoDivest movement. She studies international relations and economics at the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Backman said 50 to 60 students are active in NoDivest. They considered the referendum not only counterproductive, but also misleading: by failing to mention other actors in the region, including Hamas; by leaving out the legitimate security concerns Israel has in Gaza; and by not referencing a two-state solution.
Backman said she was drawn to activism on this issue after researching a paper on the impact of the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement. Her research convinced her that divestment is a “counterproductive tool to peace efforts and generating a sustained peace between Palestinians and Israelis.”
Among the faculty members speaking against the referendum were Michael Walzer, professor emeritus of social science at the Institute of Advanced Studies; political science professor Melissa Lane; and Daniel Kurtzer, the S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies and former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Sixty faculty members signed a letter opposing divestment.
“It is significant to win because that encourages people on other campuses to fight,” said Walzer.
The Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper, also urged students to reject the referendum, saying “divestment should only be reserved for issues about which there is substantial consensus among members of the university community.”
NoDivest suggested an alternative to the divestment referendum, called Tigers Together, for students interested in the futures of both Israel and Palestine. Tigers Together, a joint initiative of Tigers for Israel and J Street U, supports organizations working on critical development issues in Israel and Palestine.
Tigers Together has started raising funds and next year plans to send Princeton interns to Israel and Palestine to work on development issues.
“We view this trust-building, development-issue initiative as the right and proper opportunity for Princetonians at the university level to get involved so we can make an immediate, concrete impact on Israel and Palestine,” said Backman, who is involved in Tigers Together.
Melissa Lane, a professor of politics at Princeton, also supports Tigers Together. She described it as “an initiative that was started to try to provide a constructive path forward in building trust and addressing practical challenges that face Palestine and Israel together.”
Princeton junior Kyle Dhillon, a pro-divestment activist with the Princeton Committee on Palestine, called supporters of the divestment referendum “a coalition of a variety of activist student groups and individuals who are concerned with the university’s investment in companies that manufacture bulldozers, tear gas, technology used in military checkpoints, and companies selling homes in illegal settlements.”
“It is morally problematic to have our university benefiting from the suffering of other people,” he said.
Although the referendum was defeated, the PCP saw the outcome as the first step in a larger campaign, Dhillon said.
‘Demonization of Israel’
Political science professor Robert George, who opposes divestment, called the rise of anti-Israel sentiment on campus the biggest change he has seen at Princeton over his 30-year tenure.
“When I arrived in 1985, the Princeton faculty was moderately pro-Israel; now I would say it is by and large anti-Israel,” he said. In November 2014, 71 tenured faculty members signed a petition calling for divestment from companies that “contribute to or profit from the Israeli occupation.”
George suggested that the referendum grew out of what he called “the demonization of Israel” by the Left.
He questions the focus on Israel at the same time that companies are doing business with “China or Saudi Arabia or other oppressors,” and when the United States wants to reestablish and renew diplomatic and commercial relations with Cuba.
These countries have far worse human rights records than Israel, George said, “even if we consider Israel’s human rights record in the worst possible light.”
“There is no question in my mind that some, if not all, of what is driving these double standards is the ancient, horrible curse of anti-Jewish hatred,” he said.
Dhillon rejected criticism that the divestment movement is unfairly singling out Israel, and ignoring situations like the Syrian civil war or the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
“This is something as Americans we have serious influence over because we give more military aid to Israel than any country in the world,” he said. Pressure from the United States, he suggested, is the only way to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and set the stage for a two-state solution.
He also denied that supporters of divestment were motivated by anti-Semitism.
“That’s equating Judaism with Israel, which is not a fair comparison,” he said. “A lot of Jewish people in our campaign would be offended by the idea that Israel represents Judaism, because the policies the Israeli government has taken go against the humanitarian principles that Judaism teaches.”