Petitions clash over University’s role in response to Israeli-Palestinian conflct

A call by dozens of tenured faculty members for Princeton to divest from companies that “contribute to or profit from” Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has stirred up the campus since early November, with hundreds of students and faculty signing dueling petitions and debating what role the University should play in shaping public policy.

Although the Resources Committee of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC), the body charged with assessing divestment proposals, quickly decided that the original faculty petition did not meet University guidelines for consideration, organizers of the campaign — which has drawn support from 76 tenured faculty members — say they plan to press on.

“Not five years ago, having this conversation in such an open and honest way would have been much more difficult,” said Max Weiss, associate professor of history and Near Eastern studies, one of five faculty authors of the divestment petition. “What we’re seeing is a real shift in the public discourse on the limits of what I think is legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and its policies.”

Supporters see divestment as a way of pressing Israel to end what they describe as violations of human rights and international law, exemplified by last summer’s 50-day Gaza war, in which about 2,100 Palestinians and 71 Israelis died. But opponents say divestment is the wrong way to encourage compromise between parties locked in a complex, protracted conflict. 

“Divestment assigns absolute blame and demonizes one side and ignores the fact that there are failures and faults on both sides of this conflict,” said Sam Major ’16, president of Tigers for Israel, a student group whose anti-divestment petition has drawn more than 450 student signatures. “Singling out one party for blame is not going to get us anywhere.” 

The Princeton divestment controversy arises amid an ongoing international effort to pressure Israel economically in its decades-old conflict with the Palestinians, a campaign known by the shorthand BDS, for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Supporters of the Princeton effort note that, unlike some broader BDS initiatives, the University campaign targets only Israel’s involvement in the West Bank and Gaza, not Israel as a whole.

Campuses from New York to California have argued for years over divestment efforts aimed at influencing Israeli policy, but no American university has made the decision to divest.

Because Princeton does not publicly discuss its investments, neither side in the divestment debate knows whether University holdings include companies that might meet the criteria laid out in the faculty petition. But proponents say even a symbolic gesture by a high-profile institution like Princeton could carry weight.

Symbolism “is intimately linked to eventual practical effects,” said Katie Horvath ’15, a board member of the Princeton Committee for Palestine, a student group whose pro-divestment petition has drawn nearly 500 student signatures. “The ultimate goal is to create a downward spiral, where investment in companies complicit in human-rights violations becomes increasingly more risky and increasingly less palatable. Then that really creates the pressure for change.”

Princeton’s divestment guidelines, adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1997, stipulate that divestment be considered only when consensus has emerged on an issue that provokes “considerable, thoughtful, and sustained campus interest” and involves “a central University value.” 

To demonstrate that no such campus consensus exists on Israel-related divestment, officers of the University’s Center for Jewish Life followed up the faculty petition with their own anti-divestment letter, which said the “unproductive and unfair” divestment effort “raises questions as to the reason for submitting Israel to such unique pressure” in a region, and a world, filled with injustices. Six hundred faculty, staff, alumni, and parents of Princeton students have signed, said Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the CJL. 

At its Nov. 21 meeting, the CPUC Resources Committee decided that the current debate, launched when the faculty petition was published as an ad in the Nov. 5 issue of The Daily Princetonian, had given rise to no consensus and was too recent to have provoked “sustained” campus interest, said Karen Jezierny, the University’s director of public affairs, who staffs the committee.

The petitioners are free to revise and resubmit their divestment request, Jezierny said. Weiss said the faculty campaigners are considering their next move.

President Eisgruber ’83, who has met with partisans on both sides of the issue, said divestment is a distraction from the work the University should be doing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: promoting teaching, scholarship, and public discussion.

“I don’t think this is a petition that meets our criteria, and I think there are much better ways of having conversations about the issues in the Middle East that are obviously of critical importance,” Eisgruber said.