Another acrimonious debate about Israel?

By Cary Nelson

Last month, student senators listened attentively to two hours of public comment from University students and faculty. The topic: Should there be yet another referendum on this spring’s ballot about whether the University should divest from companies doing business in Israel? That issue was widely debated on campus last year, and the referendum was soundly defeated.

Although people spoke on both sides of the issue, on one point speakers from both sides agreed. Jewish and Palestinian students alike testified that they felt harassed and threatened by the hate speech the campus debate generated. Campus discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be civil, but contests to win a forthcoming vote often are not. Competition aimed at obtaining a victory involves passions of a different character. At the student government meeting, referendum advocates made their strategy clear: They were going to reintroduce the referendum year after year.

A clear expression of student opinion opposing it in a democratic vote didn’t matter. They were not giving up. That strategy has already been followed on other campuses, sometimes with annual votes taking place for a decade.

Arguing over a divestment resolution as a result crowds out every other topic — from tuition levels, to class size, to loan programs — that students care about and where their advocacy can make a difference. On divestment, a campus vote amounts to empty symbolism. No Board of Trustees is going to let students, faculty or staff decide investment policy. Investment policy is a Board fiduciary responsibility.

A broad brush condemnation of a series of companies, moreover, simply invites Board dismissal. Divestment is actually a complex subject that gets confused and falsified by the resulting tweets, posters and slogans. Some companies that do business on the West Bank actually make Palestinians’ lives easier, but they are nonetheless targeted for protests. A number of companies do not sell directly to Israel. They sell to the U.S. Defense Department, where Israel makes approved purchases, drawing on funds appropriated by the U.S. Congress. What would happen to a US company that told the Pentagon it would have to approve the Defense Department’s customer list?

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Many targeted U.S. corporations have offices and headquarters in Illinois. They offer internships to University students. They hire students’ parents and relatives. Such companies have reason to expect fair and specific engagement from University groups, not uniformed condemnation.

Yet at the campus student government debate last month, companies in all these categories were basically accused of war crimes. That is not a carefully reasoned position. National Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions websites target any company, among others, that sells to the Israeli army, including companies that sell shoes and binoculars, even when the same models are marketed to civilian consumers here and abroad.

The University has important research collaborations with Israeli faculty members and their institutions. It has study abroad programs for students. Academic freedom provides that students and faculty have the right to pursue those options. The same Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that promotes divestment urges universities to eliminate all those relationships. It even says faculty members should refuse to write letters of recommendation for students wanting to study in Israel. The local and national groups that endorse divestment endorse those demands as well.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is among the important topics that should be studied and discussed on campus. But a divestment debate is not a good way to do so. There are courses offered in our institution that encourage a critical approach to studying Israel and Palestine. These engage in nuance and context, providing students the opportunity to learn in detail. By contrast, the rhetoric surrounding the divestment debate can be shallow, informed by simplistic slogans.

We do not need another acrimonious divestment debate at this University.


Faculty Signatories:

Ilana Redstone Akresh, Sociology

Richard S. Akresh, Economics

Nigel D. Goldenfeld, Physics

Rachel S. Harris, Comparative Literature

Richard Herman, Chancellor emeritus

Deborah Katz-Downie, Plant Biology

Michael H. Leroy, Labor & Industrial Relations

Cary Nelson, English

Jacqueline Ross, Law

Richard J. Ross, Law


Cary is a faculty member in LAS, writing on behalf of 10 University faculty members. 

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