Monday, November 16, 2009

What You Should Know Before You Criticize Hampshire College and the BDS Conference

As we have noted, Amherst tends to generate controversy, and few topics are more controversial than the Middle East, so the combination of the two is a potentially explosive one.

The last thing we need here is an explosion. The political temperature was already running high on campus last semester, as a result of the Gaza conflict and the attempts by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to force divestiture of holdings said to support the Israeli occupation.

The coming SJP-sponsored national conference on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions directed against Israel thus raises the specter of renewed internal strife and external hostility.

In hopes of preventing or minimizing the latter, allow me to state a few simple facts that commentators should consider before reaching for the keyboard and leaping to the attack:
1) SJP and its supporters are entirely within their rights, as a duly registered student organization, and as members of the community exercising their academic freedom, in holding this event.

2) Because this is a student-sponsored event, the fact that it takes place on our campus in no way signals an endorsement, on the part of the College and its administration, of the conference or the statements of any participants. The College intervenes only when safety or violations of the law are at issue.

3) Many claims from inside and outside the College notwithstanding, Hampshire never divested itself, in whole or in part, on political grounds, of investments in Israel or companies that do business with Israel. To begin with, SJP never sought or claimed divestment from "Israel," as such. It targeted several companies that it identified as involved in the occupation. Even that limited attempt was not successful.

It’s a complicated story—which is in part why it lends itself so easily to distortion—but in a nutshell: The College, after reviewing its portfolio, found a large number of companies to be in violation of its socially responsible investment policy. Some of the companies that SJP had targeted were dropped, and some were retained, but in neither case due to any association with the occupation. The story was complicated, but the answer was simple, and that should have been the end of it. After all, if I urge my friend to go green, and she later sells her GM stock out of dissatisfaction with the company’s labor policies, I can’t really claim that she was acting to withdraw her support for our unsustainable carbon-based industrial model. Unfortunately, the myth of divestment persists.

4) The College administration and staff have been working closely with the student organizers in order to ensure that they understand the ground rules and the gathering proceeds smoothly and peacefully. The administration's position is that no divestment took place earlier this year, that any statement to the contrary is a willful misrepresentation of the facts, and that only the trustees and administration are empowered to speak on behalf of the College.

If you object to the premise or actions of the conference, then by all means express your views. That is your right, just as it is the right of the students to express their views. But please, do not attack the College. And, oh, yes: please do check your facts carefully before you hit that "send" button.

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