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December 2002 • Vol 2, No. 11 •

With Petition, Yale Group Joins Push for Israel Divestment

By Lauren A. E. Schuker


Yale University alumni, faculty and students launched a petition on Tuesday demanding the University immediately divest from corporations that conduct business in Israel.

In doing so, the Yale Divest from Israel Campaign (YDIC) joins the ranks of 50 other university groups, including ones at Harvard and Princeton, that have formed a grass-roots divestment movement.

The petition is unique in that it provides a legal argument for divestment in addition to a moral one, arguing that by investing in Israel, the university violates its own strict ethical investment policy.

The policy is grounded in guidelines dictated by Yale law professor John G. Simon’s 1972 book The Ethical Investor. When investments lead to social harm—especially when they violate human rights laws concerning the deprivation of health, safety and freedom—the policy mandates that Yale divest.

YDIC’s petition also calls for Yale to make public any private investments it has in Israel.

YDIC alumni spokesperson Rod Swenson, who graduated from Yale’s School of Architecture in 1969, said the group will pursue legal action if the administration ignores the petition.

“If Yale does not respond to the petition within a few months, we will take legal action, and unless the university divests or rescinds its investment policies, it will be subject to misdemeanors and could lose its tax-exempt status,” Swenson said.

In comparison to other divestment efforts such as Harvard’s, which simply calls for divestment on moral grounds, Yale’s petition drives a hard bargain, according to Francis Boyle, who is a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and served as a technical adviser for the Yale petition.

Boyle is also credited with beginning the divestment movement in November 2000 with a speech he made at Illinois State University that suggested divestment could help the Mideast situation, as it did with South African apartheid in the 1980s.

“I think Yale’s petition is much better than Harvard’s or Columbia’s petition in that it possesses both a legal and moral argument and calls for the total, rather than the partial selling off of investments,” Boyle said.

But he added that Yale’s petition asks for so much that he wonders whether it will garner much support.

The petition is posted on YDIC’s website and was first publicized in an advertisement that appeared in Tuesday’s issue of the Yale Daily News.

Yale University President Richard Levin could not be reached for comment yesterday. But he told the Daily News on Tuesday that he had not heard of the petition.

Administrative response may not be immediately forthcoming. According to Yale University spokesperson Tom Conroy, all divestment proposals must be heard by Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR) before they can be initiated.

“Anyone can request divestment, but the ACIR fields all requests and they make the official recommendations regarding the university’s holdings,” he said.

Conroy added that, as of yet, he had not heard any discussion on campus about divestment.

But Associate Dean of Yale College, Penelope Laurans, who is also special assistant to the president, said she had visited the group’s website.

“The group running this campaign has every right to exist, but it isn’t an official group and its website’s front page should not make it look as if it is,” she said.

She added that the site’s interface is remarkably stylistically similar to the official Yale website, using “the same Yale blue and ... the same font in the Yale name”—design elements that might infringe on Yale’s copyright.

Swenson said the website seems to have been effective thus far, saying that signatures have been “flowing in heavily,” although he declined to specify an exact number.

A complete list will be posted on the website within a month, he said.

Reaction on the campus appears to be mixed

Dmitri Gutas, chair of Yale’s Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, signed the petition, saying he supports the sentiment behind the move.

“There is a terrible kind of hypocrisy going on here—both Israel and Iraq have consistently defied UN resolutions, yet we have declared war on Iraq and barely discussed Israel,” he said. “If we are going to be moral people, we need to apply the same standards to everyone.”

Junior Leveille McClain, a member of Yale’s Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports divestment, said there has not yet been much discussion about the issue.

“The petition does not represent the exact views of all students groups on divestment,” he said, “but many student groups do support it.”

But co-president of Yale Friends of Israel Emily Scharfman, a Yale sophomore, said the divestment campaign is illegitimate and unsound.

“Divestment would make a mockery out of Yale students,” she said. “The campus as a whole is not pushing for divestment.”

YDIC’s petition is not the first attempt to promote divestment at Yale.

Students for Justice in Palestine submitted a divestment proposal to the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility last spring, but no official divestment petition began until alumni stepped in during the summer.

“We were impatient that there wasn’t a voice for divestment at Yale,” said YDIC alumni spokesperson Swenson. “So we researched the issue and drafted a petition with the help of Professor Boyle.”

But he added that the relatively late date of Yale’s petition allowed them to develop a more elaborate proposal than those already in circulation.

Harvard’s Pierce Professor of Psychology Ken Nakayama, who helped initiate Harvard’s divestment petition last spring, said yesterday that though he had not heard anything about the divestment effort at Yale, he supported such a move.

“I do not know any of the organizers of this effort, but it is good to hear that other groups around the country are initiating similar campaigns,” he said. “Only through the countless efforts of informed American citizens will we be able to pressure the U.S. government to force Israel to dismantle the settlements and end its 35-year occupation.”

The Harvard-MIT divestment petition has gained the signatures of 74 Harvard faculty and 56 MIT faculty, along with that of hundreds of students and alumni. To date, University President Lawrence H. Summers’ only public statement about divestment came at Morning Prayers two months ago, when he said these efforts were “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.”

Boyle, who recently debated divestment with Harvard’s Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz on Boston’s National Public Radio station, said he hopes to unify different universities’ divestment efforts—including those at Harvard.

“If we could simply meet with Larry Summers to discuss the merits of divestment, I believe we could allay his concerns,” he said.

Boyle also hopes to bring international support to the divestment movement. Along with others, he is working on creating an “international clearinghouse” that would serve as an information base for groups to consult.

“There are some financial limitations in creating this clearinghouse,” Boyle said. “But we could use it to get groups in England, France and South Africa involved, and to spread the message of divestment from students to the broader public.”

University-based divestment groups continue to spread across the country. Organizations at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Maryland both launched petitions yesterday.

“There is a great momentum right now,” Swenson said.

Harvard Crimson, November 14, 2002

On October 10, 2002, International Human Rights Day, Students carried coffins symbolic of the losses that would inevitabaly follow the U.S. war on Iraq. These Boston College students were part of hundreds of similiar actions across this country.





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