Jewish professors keep divestment drive alive(FWD: The Boston Globe)

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sat Dec 21 06:09:02 MST 2002


Jewish professors keep divestment drive alive


By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 12/21/2002

CAMBRIDGE - The national movement to pressure universities
to pull their investments from Israel has been battered
this year by critics who call it divisive and anti-Semitic.

But it has shown remarkable staying power in large
part because of an unusual group of supporters:
Jewish professors.

Hundreds of college professors nationwide have signed
petitions calling for divestment from Israel, among them
several dozen Jewish professors who call their signatures
an act of political conscience. As the fall semester draws
to a close, many have found themselves - not always
purposely - becoming spokesmen for a cause that has
deeply split their campuses.

''I simply couldn't afford to sit back any longer,''
said Harvard psychology professor Elizabeth Spelke,
whose family has roots in Israel, and who signed the
petition to protest Israel's military crackdown on Palestinians.

Modeled on an anti-apartheid campaign that led campuses
to divest from South Africa in the 1980s, the petition
criticizes Israel's actions in the occupied territories
and calls on universities to sell any investments in
Israel, and in companies that do business there. It has
circulated at more than 50 campuses, including Harvard,
MIT, Yale, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Although most university presidents have repudiated or
rejected its demands, the petition has had a powerful
impact on campus. It has become a flashpoint for arguments
among students - particularly Jews and Muslims - and
triggered a far more popular counter-petition supporting Israel.

Since they signed, Spelke and other Jewish professors have
been bombarded with e-mail and letters accusing them of
betraying fellow Jews and Israel, of self-loathing and
anti-Semitism, and - most disturbing to some - of giving
comfort to suicide bombers in Israel. Most prominently,
Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers has publicly
suggested that the divestment movement has anti-Semitic overtones.

Spelke and others say they see it not as a matter of
religion or psychology but of conscience, and their
intensely personal responses to the charges of anti-Semitism
have helped keep the divestment movement alive.

''The best way we as a society can debate this is not to poke
fingers - `Oh, you're saying that because you're anti-Semitic'
or `Oh, you're saying that because you're Jewish' - but rather
to evaluate the arguments straight up,'' Spelke said.

Sylvain Bromberger, a noted Massachusetts Institute of
Technology philosopher whose mother once edited a Zionist
newspaper in Belgium and whose family narrowly escaped
capture by the Nazis, became a hero to some divestment
supporters this fall when he defended them in a toughly
worded letter to Summers.

''They are good and courageous people, the sort of people
who took great risks to save Jews during the occupation,''
Bromberger wrote to Summers. ''What you insinuated about
them was sheer, crude calumny. You must have known that.
You must know people like them. ... As a Jew, I found your
statement to be slanderous. As a holder of a Harvard degree
I found it embarrassing.''

Summers sent a polite reply, Bromberger said in an interview.

Summers's spokesman, Alan J. Stone, said: ''President Summers
was clear in saying that Israeli policies should be rigorously
challenged. He used the phrase `anti-Semitic in effect if not
intent' to describe a range of actions from boycotts of Jewish
scholars to pressure on universities to single out and ostracize
Israel through divestment.''

In interviews, Bromberger, Spelke, and several other Jewish
scholars who have signed the petition described themselves in
similar terms: Not at all religiously devout, they feel culturally
tied to Judaism. They emphasized that they signed the petition
only to criticize the Sharon government, not to attack Israelis.
They said they see the Sharon government as a political entity
supporting a territorial occupation with new housing
settlements - and some have targeted him, rather than other
leaders, in part because they feel a personal affinity for
the Jewish state.

''As a Jew, it's so personally disturbing to me that this is
even happening in Israel,'' said Charles G. Gross, a
psychology professor at Princeton University. ''I'm a little
bit more concerned with social justice in Israel than in
some other countries.''

While supporters of divestment cross many ethnic and religious
lines, the Jewish signers of the petition have drawn critics
who see psychological factors at play. Richard Landes, a
Boston University historian who has signed a counter-petition
supporting investment in Israel, said he believes that Jewish
support for divestment is ''enabling'' those who attack Israel.

''Jews are probably the most self-critical people, the most
self-critical culture, historically speaking - just go back
to the prophets,'' said Landes, who spoke at a Harvard forum
last week titled, ''How Do You Know When It's Anti-Semitism?''

Landes said he was especially troubled that Jews would support
a petition that asks nothing of Palestinians or terrorist
groups, but puts the onus on Israel.

Raw emotion has marked much of the debate, and Jewish supporters
of Israel have not been shy about labeling the petition as
anti-Semitic.

''I don't know if these people themselves are anti-Semitic,
but Jews and non-Jews alike have a responsibility to get their
facts right - Israel is under attack, and a petition that doesn't
acknowledge this but only condemns Israel is anti-Semitic,''
said Asher Schachter, a Harvard Medical School instructor who
is one of 439 Harvard faculty to sign an anti-divestment
petition - far more than the 75 faculty at Harvard who
support divestment.

This mixing of the personal and political has led to
soul-searching for some of the Jewish scholars.

Sara Roy, a child of Holocaust survivors and a
Middle East researcher at Harvard, has not signed
the divestment petition but is seen as an ally in
the movement because of a Holocaust Remembrance
Lecture she gave this year and published last month.
In the speech, she said: ''For my mother and father,
Judaism meant bearing witness, railing against injustice,
and forgoing silence. ... What sort of meaning do we as Jews
derive from the debasement and humiliation of Palestinians?''

Spelke said she paused for some time before signing the
petition because she feared it would do more harm than good,
a fear deepened by her Jewish history. Her late grandmother,
Mae Barros Simon, always won their arguments about Israel
by casting the Middle East conflict in personal terms,
Spelke said.

''Lizzie, Israel is the land of our hopes and dreams. Every
year I planted a tree there for you,'' Spelke wrote in an
essay, quoting her grandmother. ''How can you destroy my dream?''

Yet Spelke says she felt more connected to her Jewish roots
after she signed the petition because she was no longer
''sitting around worrying, being fearful, hoping for the
best, and doing nothing.''

Ken Olum, a member of the Tufts physics department who helped
organize a divestment petition on campus, said he has wrestled
so long with his frustrations with Israel, and with widespread
Jewish support for the government there, that he has stopped
identifying himself as a Jew when people discuss religion,
the Middle East, or other subjects.

''The fact that a lot of people who count themselves as
among the Jewish people are doing a great evil, an un-Jewish
evil, has been overwhelming,'' Olum said. ''The moral stakes
here are too great to not take this stand.''

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy at globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/21/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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