Sunday, February 7, 2010

7 February 2009: Hampshire College Divests From "Israeli Occupation" (NOT!)

As long as we're dealing in anomalies: whereas the last posting tardily marked a historical anniversary, this one punctually marks the anniversary of a non-event.

I wouldn’t note it at all, were the whole episode not so surreal.

A year ago, as readers may recall (or maybe not, for it was a colossal non-story, if that's not an oxymoron), Hampshire College Students for Justice in Palestine (HSJP) secured their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame (or was it only five?) by announcing to the world that my college, the first to sever its economic ties to South Africa a generation ago, had made another epochal political statement by deliberately divesting itself of holdings that supported the proverbial "Israeli occupation of Palestine." [correction: I forgot to capitalize "Occupation." So sorry!]

The narrative details of the story are complicated, but the plot summary is not: As the President and Vice President and Dean of Faculty of the College and Chairman of the Board of Trustees immediately made clear, no such thing ever happened.

Undaunted by this minor obstacle to its ambitions and blemish on its reputation, HSJP now proclaims:
First Anniversary of Divestment 2009 coming up!

February 7th marks the anniversary of Hampshire College's divestment from the Israeli Occupation of Palestine, the first institution of higher education to wash its hands of the systematic exploitation of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state. To remember the occasion, Students for Justice in Palestine urges you to talk, inform and celebrate this historic event. . . .
And once again, HSJP is spreading the story across the internet.

This is the more disappointing because it had seemed that we made progress. The atmosphere on campus last winter became positively toxic as a result of HSJP agitation over the Gaza conflict and divestment. This fall, as HSJP planned its first national conference to promote the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), I was part of a group of faculty, staff, and students who worked to ensure that the campus climate would remain calm and civil. As I have explained earlier, the student organization was entirely within its rights to organize and host the event. The administration laid down just two basic requirements: (1) the campus had to be a safe place for all opinions; (2) HSJP was under no circumstances to make false statements about College policy and actions.

We did fairly well on the first count. There were the few inevitable animated debates, but the entire event took place by and large without controversy--or consequences (as one would have expected of a movement whose entire raison d'être is self-referential).

On the second count: not as well: SJP formally distributed its convoluted and disingenuous account of the February Revolution, insisting that, despite what the administration said, divestment really did take place. That should have been a tip-off.

We live in a strange world. Some educated and otherwise rational people believe that the Mayans not just predicted, but correctly predicted that the world would end in 2012. Some believe that no airplane hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Others persist in asserting that President Barack Obama is not a US citizen. Still others believe that global warming is a hoax.

Political disagreements are one thing. History and historical evidence are quite another.

A real Massachusetts revolutionary (as opposed to those who just play that role on the internet) understood this:
"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

—John Adams, 'Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,' December 1770

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