Response to anti-divestment petition

Recently a petition against the divestment resolution presented by Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine has appeared. As a concerned Stanford community member I wish to file this response. The anti-divestment petition uses many by-now common obfuscations of the issue, including mischaracterization, to make its case. I think it is important to address its main arguments so as to bring the actual motive and nature of the resolution back into focus.

The opposing petition makes these key counter-arguments. I offer my response in italics after each:

“We believe that the resolution of highly complex geopolitical issues, such as the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, requires the development of thoughtful and constructive approaches that respect the dignity and rights of both peoples. The calls for divestment satisfy none of these criteria. Instead, the calls for divestments ask Stanford to take highly divisive action by condemning Israel, and Israel alone, for the current state of affairs.”

The pro-divestment resolution does not aspire to “resolve” a “complex geopolitical issue.” Its sole aim is to stop Stanford’s financial involvement with companies that aid and abet illegal practices, practices that do great harm and damage to a captive population. Period. The “current state of affairs” is again a diversion from the single target of divestment—divestment aims only at distancing Stanford from a set of practices roundly and multiply condemned by international law, as the many documents from sources such as the United Nations, provided within the resolution, prove.

“Our concerns are heightened because the calls for university divestment are a priority of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The BDS movement does not aim toward a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that recognizes the legitimate national aspirations of both peoples. The majority of the leadership of the BDS Movement does not support Israel’s right to exist, and sees all of Israel as ‘Occupied Palestine.’”

There is absolutely no evidence that those supporting divestment do or would sign onto BDS. Indeed, if they did one would assume they would press for a boycott as well. But that is entirely beside the point. Making the guilt-by-association move allows the anti-divestment side to then say BDS does not “aim toward a peaceful resolution” and tar the pro-divestment side with that brush.

Furthermore the anti-divestment side provides no evidence whatsoever for that BDS does not aim toward a peaceful resolution. Indeed, it is exactly the opposite. BDS arose as an entirely legal and non-violent movement in the aftermath of the bloodshed of the Second Intifada. Over 170 civil organizations—teachers unions, health care organizations, workers, intellectuals—decided that another way had to be attempted to bring about justice for Palestinians and others in Israel and in the Occupied Territories. The rhetorical move that ends the paragraph is again an attempt at guilt by association—but the distance between a group of American university students and a reputed (and unnamed) portion of the leadership of an organization in Israel-Palestine is so great as to not have any logical weight.

“Similarly, when groups such as Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine rail against Israel’s recent operations in Gaza against Hamas, they omit the thousands of rockets Hamas fired at Israeli civilians, the Hamas charter that explicitly rejects “peace initiatives” and Hamas’ continued statements that its goal is to destroy Israel. There is also no effort to ask the University to address grotesque human rights violations by other countries. The University should not minimize the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a ‘right’/’wrong’ judgment, nor cherry-pick allegations against one country while ignoring so many other incidents in which human rights violations are indisputable.”

One possible reason for the rejection of “peace initiatives” is that Israel itself has violated the terms of such initiatives repeatedly and with impunity. Most recently it violated the ceasefire, ostensibly in pursuit of the killers of three Israeli settler youths. We now know that Israel knew the youths were already dead when it used the pretext of the search for the youths for its brutal and illegal act of collective punishment, which resulted in these United Nations figures, published by the BBC. These figures provide the most germane empirical data with which to assess the real effect of reputedly “thousands” of rockets fired by Hamas. The United Nations found, between July 8 and August 27, 2014:

2104 Palestinians killed, of whom were 1,462 civilians, including 495 children and 253 women.
72 Israelis killed. Of whom only 6 were civilians.

This vast disproportion bespeaks the ardent and systematic effort on the part of the Israeli government to collectively punish a population, destroy its infrastructure, and terrorize its civilian population. Unlike the Palestinians, Israel has one of the world’s most powerful armed forces, including deadly fighter planes supplied by the United States and paid for with our tax dollars. The Palestinians have none of that. Contrary to what the anti-divestment side argues, these facts and figures are not “cherry-picked.” They are clear wrongs with which Stanford cannot be associated without casting real doubt as to its commitment to the standard of ethics it professes. Finally, to mention that other countries engage in human rights violations as a pre-text for our remaining complicit with Israel’s violations is bizarre.

“The question of how to guarantee the rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people is a formidable challenge. What is clear, though, is that placing all blame for the conflict on Israel alone is to adopt a highly partisan viewpoint pressed by advocacy groups with a larger objective of delegitimizing Israel.”

Again, a mischaracterization of the effort. Nowhere in the document is there any assertion whatsoever that “all the blame” for the conflict lies with Israel. As noted in the response to the first point, this is a rhetorical misdirection. The divestment resolution aims solely at addressing a set of illegal practices by the state of Israel which Stanford is helping to finance. Period.

But it should be noted that, again in accordance with international human rights conventions, the population of an occupied territory is supposed to be under the protection of its occupier. Perversely, Israel, as the occupying state, routinely siphons desperately needed water resources away from Palestinian villages to fill the swimming pools of the settlements; purposefully creates power shortages in Palestinian villages; through an extensive system of road blocks and checkpoints and settler-only highways makes daily movement impossible for ordinary Palestinians; has constructed an illegal Wall dividing whole villages; has imposed an illegal embargo of Gaza. Such are the health care crises that face ordinary Palestinians that the World Health Organization has repeatedly called attention to the desperate lack of medical care in Gaza and urged Israel to make medical supplies available to Palestinians, who suffer grave health and psychological damage due to years and years of Occupation. It is from companies that profit from aiding and abetting the Occupation that we are asking Stanford to divest.

“Furthermore, we strenuously object to the petition’s attempt to falsely link our country’s serious issues of race relations, police violence and incarceration rates with an international conflict over land and national narratives. This is a cynical effort to hijack important civil rights issues to further a narrow political agenda.”

This point is irrelevant to the matter at hand—the legitimacy of divestment.

“It is also critical to recognize the painfully divisive impact any such action would have within the Stanford community. The University’s imperative is to create a welcoming environment that encourages debate of all sorts. We strongly support the free exchange of ideas, including views that are critical of Israel. However, prior divestment campaigns at Stanford have engendered hostility for communities of Stanford students and faculty that have challenged that very environment of civil and open discourse. Further, the BDS movement’s calls for academic and cultural boycotts of Israel are antithetical to Stanford’s cherished academic values of thoughtful discourse and academic freedom, and the deep belief that the best way to effect change is to engage, educate and work creatively toward just solutions.”

The authors again give no evidence whatsoever for their claims. But in terms of divisiveness, I will end by asking a question: why remain unified by accommodating and indeed helping to support actions that have been ruled illegal, immoral, and unjust by international human rights conventions and covenants, the Geneva Conventions, and the United Nations? Why not join civic groups within the United States including mainstream groups such as Presbyterian Church, USA, and individuals such as Bill Gates, and divest from companies that facilitate the Occupation?

Open Letter to Chancellor Katehi on the UC Davis student vote to divest

Dear Chancellor Katehi,

I write as an alumnus of the University of California, and also as someone who supports the effort to stop the investment of public funds in firms that engage in activities deemed illegal by international law, the Geneva conventions, and international human rights conventions and covenants. Any profits made by such investments are contaminated utterly by their unethical origins.

Your communication to the UC Davis community has been widely shared. I wish to comment upon two key paragraphs. First, you write,

“This [vote] however does not reflect the position of UC Davis or the University of California system. The investment policy for the University of California system including UC Davis is set by the UC Board of Regents. The Board and Office of the President issued a statement regarding student resolutions that urge the Board to divest from companies doing business with Israel. The statement reiterates the Board’s position that this type of call to action will not be entertained.”

You are of course correct, and you as an administrator are acting as expected to distance your administration from the student vote and to stand by the UC policy. What is troubling is the way you then move to the next paragraph:

“We recognize that this is a sensitive topic for many on our campus one that is very personal and emotional. It is for this reason that we must exercise sensitivity restraint and respect in relation to the issue. Prior to the debate last night those in attendance were reminded of our Principles of Community. We affirmed the right to freedom of expression but also affirmed our commitment to the highest standards of civility and decency toward all.”

For many of us reading the document this seems an utter non sequitur. Again, it is clear that you are acting to make sure the public understands that you did all you could to maintain “civility and decency,” but the tone is not a little condescending and presumptuous, and casts a light of condemnation on the subsequent vote. It is as if the vote were somehow suspect and therefore illegitimate, and arrived at without civility or decency. It was in fact a resounding vote, democratically arrived at.

One would not necessarily expect you to congratulate the students on their passion for justice, their investment in reasoned debate and due process, the time and energy they spent on investigating the issue thoroughly and by rational means of persuasion convincing the great majority of those voting to vote as they did. But it is deeply regrettable that you seem to wish to void the vote of any symbolic weight, which it surely has, regardless of the University of California’s lack of willingness to answer a call for justice.



Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, Stanford University