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Princeton debates profs’ divestment petition
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Princeton debates profs’ divestment petition

Campus Hillel urges ‘strategic approach to defeat this action’

Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director at the Center for Jewish Life-Hillel at Princeton University, introduces a speaker at a CJL event in 2011.  Photo courtesy CJL-Hillel
Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director at the Center for Jewish Life-Hillel at Princeton University, introduces a speaker at a CJL event in 2011.  Photo courtesy CJL-Hillel

Some 60 tenured professors at Princeton University have signed a petition asking that the university divest from companies doing business in lands “occupied” by Israel.

The petition has opened up a debate in the campus Jewish community, with dueling petitions and op-eds and disagreement over what if anything represents the pro-Israel “consensus” on campus.

The pro-divestment petition, which even the opposition concedes is unlikely to succeed, appeared as an advertisement earlier this month in the campus newspaper, The Daily Princetonian.

It was authored by five professors, who stated they were “deeply concerned about the brutality of Israeli military rule over Palestinians in the occupied West Bank as well as the ongoing Israeli military and economic siege of Gaza.”

It calls for Princeton to “divest from all companies that contribute to or profit from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and continued siege of Gaza.”

That prompted a community e-mail by Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton, urging pro-Israel students and faculty to “take the best, positive strategic approach to defeat this action.”

It included a link to a counter-petition, which had garnered about 350 signatures and was also published in the campus newspaper. That petition states that campaigns that “demonize or assign absolute blame” to either the Palestinians or Israelis are counterproductive.

Sam Major, a history major from New York City and president of Tigers for Israel, seconded those sentiments in an op-ed in the campus newspaper, saying that “divestment — and the larger BDS movement — is counter-productive to establishing a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Additionally, a petition by about 65 pro-Israel faculty members, including Daniel C. Kurtzer — S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East policy studies at its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to Israel — was also circulated to counter the divestment petition.

Not all Jewish or pro-Israel students were on board with the responses by CJL or Major, however. Thirty-six Jewish students signed their own guest column in the paper, objecting that CJL, an affiliate of the Hillel movement, assumed Jewish and pro-Israel students were of one mind on the issue.

They objected to the “decision to take a political stance on this issue on behalf of the entire community. Doing so excludes the many Jews who do not share these views.”

Their letter called for an “open Hillel,” a movement on campuses that rejects the international Hillel movement’s blanket rejection of partnerships with groups, Jewish or otherwise, that support boycotts, divestment, and sanctions directed against Israel.

Students and faculty members on all sides seemed reluctant to talk to a reporter about the debate. NJJN tried contacting a number of faculty members on both sides of the issue. The only message that was returned was from Melissa Lane, the Class of 1943 Professor of Politics and a pro-Israel supporter, who said “there had already been enough written in the blogsphere” and those involved preferred not to comment further.

Likewise, Roth sent an e-mail to NJJN stating, “We’ve spoken to our student leaders and they prefer not to be interviewed for a story. I am also not inclined to comment. Please understand that we are not trying to be unhelpful; rather we have been bombarded with requests for press coverage and have referred every reporter to documents we have already written.”

Max Weiss, a professor of history and Near Eastern studies and an author of the divestment petition, spoke to an NJJN reporter following a university program featuring Steven Salaita, whose tenured position at the University of Illinois was withdrawn after he issued a series of tweets this summer considered by many to be anti-Semitic.

Weiss noted that some people support an economic boycott of Israel but not an academic one.

“I make the distinction between boycotting individuals and institutions,” said Weiss. “Institutions are complicit in the ongoing and seemingly unending occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza.”

As such, Weiss said, he has “every reason to collaborate with Israeli professors, which I do.”

Weiss said he supported the BDS campaign against Israel, but that the movement “is not one thing; it is an evolving tactic animated by and transformed by those who perform it.”

The Princeton Committee on Palestine website links to the pro-divestment petition, gathering about 500 signatures. Mason Herson-Hord, its media coordinator, said the organization supports “this very limited divestment program” to end Israel’s “military occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza.”

Herson-Hord, a senior Near Eastern studies major, said members of his organization have differing views on the best way to achieve that goal.

“I can assure you some of the most active and committed members of our group are Jewish,” he said, adding that some of the signers of the letter criticizing Hillel were group members.

“I would be incredibly surprised if the university divested — that’s wildly unlikely. But, it’s an excellent opportunity to educate a bunch of students,” he said.

Andrew Frank, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, said the organization was monitoring the situation.

“We are following the lead the Center for Jewish Life has taken,” he said. “We think CJL has issued a statement of intelligence and sensitivity, and we have repeatedly offered our assistance to them.”

Keith Krivitzky, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, is a 1995 graduate of Princeton. He found the pro-divestment initiative to be “very disappointing.”

“I remember from the time I was at Princeton there was a rich diversity of opinion and a healthy debate on this and many other issues,” he said. “The relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is terribly complex. I would think that Princeton faculty, who are normally very comfortable with complexity and nuance, would have a healthier respect for how complicated this issue is. I think they missed the boat.

“If they spent as much time trying to understand this situation as they do in their own areas of research, they’d probably adopt a different approach and maybe we’d be closer to a realistic solution.”

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