Monday, January 9, 2012

Putting the Hampshire College Divestment Myth in its Grave

The anti-Israel “BDS” (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement seems to be at a tipping point. It confidently promises an unprecedented campaign in 2012, yet its efforts in the past year met with pushback and setbacks around the globe. Its choice of targets moreover grew increasingly petty, not to say, bizarre: hummus (made in New York)? chocolate shops in Australia? a symphony orchestra on tour? (1 vs. 2)  WTF?! The world finally seems to be catching on.

Plans for a national conference of the BDS movement, to be held at the University of Pennsylvania in February (1, 2), are already bringing bad news. The administration not only declared in advance that hosting the gathering did not constitute endorsement (standard operating procedure for all sorts of student events). It also took the notable step of explicitly condemning the BDS movement and affirming the importance of ties with Israeli academics.


The Penn activists claim to be “Picking up where the 2009 Hampshire conference left off.” They may wish to reconsider their chosen model. The rather lackluster original conference at Hampshire (1, 2, 3)  followed on the heels of the claim that the College had divested from “the Israeli Occupation of Palestine” earlier that year. Unfortunately, as everyone else in the world seems to know, that divestment claim is false. Call it what you will—misinterpretation, wishful thinking, hoax, fraud, lie—it didn’t happen, and that’s that. Hampshire College disposed of any remaining doubts when it presented its new socially responsible investing policy last month.

Jon Haber, who has followed anti-Israel divestment efforts closely, likens the so-called BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement to a vampire: (1) every time you think it’s dead, it comes back, a phenomenon that conveys (in accordance with its hopes and wishes) an air of invincibility. In fact, (2) its powers are more limited than it would like you to believe, because it can become a threat only when you allow it to cross your threshold. In Jon’s view, the BDS movement—which has scored no major or lasting victories in the course of a decade—has survived beyond its normal life only by virtue of the fact that its dedicated activists prey upon those who, whether deliberately or unwittingly, allow it to gain entrance to their organizations.

high time for institutions to wake up to the threat of BDS
This explains why the academically robust but financially anemic Hampshire College would prove such an enticing victim for the vampires: the endorsement of the first American institution of higher education to divest from South Africa would lend weight to the false assertion that Israel, too, practices “apartheid.”

That the College, following a divestment request by anti-Israel activists, made changes to its investment portfolio in 2009 is not in dispute. The dispute turns instead on the meaning of that action. The task of the historian, as Thomas Babington Macaulay says in the motto on the masthead of this blog, is not merely to establish the facts, but above all, to interpret them.

As is well known: the College, upon reviewing the fund in question, found that multiple companies were in violation of its socially responsible investment policy, and reallocated its assets accordingly. That standard (e.g. declining to invest in military products) was the sole rationale behind the action. The decision had nothing to do with Israel, affected a far greater number of firms having no association with Israel, and above all, rendered no verdict on Israel or its policies, whether within the “Green Line” or in the “occupied territories.”

No credible observer believes that divestment took place, for three very simple reasons: Divestment is a political action that therefore has meaning only if it is (1) deliberate and (2) accompanied by a public statement (3) on the part of an officially responsible body. When the College divested from holdings in South Africa, the administration and trustees publicly announced their action and stated the reasons. That contrast says it all.

A mere change in resource allocation makes no such statement. I once tried to illustrate this distinction by analogy:
If I sell my shares in Chrysler because I think it's a badly-run company that does not serve its stockholders, it's technically "true" that I have "relinquished" (to use the language of another recent student flier) my investment in a particular firm that profits from our irresponsible reliance on fossil fuels, but I have hardly "divested" myself—as a conscious and political statement (which is the only practical meaning that "divestment" can have in this context)—of participation in the carbon-based economy: especially if I continue to hold stock in Ford, Toyota, and Mobil.
The disinclination of Hampshire College to invest in certain areas does not necessarily render a verdict on their legality or morality:

• The College (although this is nowhere formally stated) does not invest in companies dealing in alcoholic beverages. Unlike tobacco, the latter do not necessarily cause harm when used responsibly. However, alcohol is neither a necessity of life nor an unmitigated good, and the College simply prefers to direct its resources to firms that, e.g. “Provide beneficial goods and services such as food, clothing, housing, health, education, transportation and energy.” (Policy, p. 2: Point 1) No rational person would conclude that, by declining to support the alcohol industry, we are endorsing prohibition—or even temperance. Hampshire College serves beer, wine, and liquor at some of its events—for example, dinners of the Board of Trustees, who approve the investment policy.

• The policy does not allow investment in companies that “Make nuclear, biological, or conventional weapons.” (Policy, p. 2: Point A) Nations have the right to self-defense. The US Constitution requires the government “to provide for the common defence,” and authorizes Congress “to raise and support armies” and “provide and maintain a navy.” No rational person would therefore conclude that our policy entails a rejection of the Constitution or the armed forces of the United States.

The decision taken in response to the divestment request had to do with military products, not their recipient: not Israel, not anyone else. If and when there is a Palestinian state, the College will likewise refuse to invest in firms that provide it with weapons.

Clear, one would think.

And yet the divestment myth refused to die. BDS advocates clung to it with a religious fervor, as if repeating it often enough could make it true.

They will find it more difficult than ever to maintain that position following the report on the new socially responsible investment policy last month.

Former President Marlene Fried:
there is clarity and unanimity on the Board that it did not make a decision to divest from the State of Israel, that it did not decide that Israel was in the same camp as South Africa.

Although the student questioner, fearing some semantic or conceptual confusion, correctly pointed out that the divestment claim involved the “Israeli occupation of Palestine” rather than investment in Israel, as such, it is a distinction without a difference in light of the above (as well as the stance of the BDS movement, for that matter)—and indeed, Fried responded by reaffirming the College’s rejection of the claim: “the Board does not believe that.”

There was no dissent from any member of the committee, and that includes Professor Emeritus Stan Warner, a well-known economist and political progressive, who was the faculty representative on the subcommittee on investment responsibility (CHOIR) at the time of the original divestment request, and who advised and educated student members about investment policy. Surely, if divestment had succeeded, he would know and be duty-bound to say so. But no, in the course of the nearly twelve-minute discussion of the issue, he was in fact the only member of the committee who did not speak to the controversy, as such, jumping in only briefly to answer a procedural question.

The College has made it clear, time and again: no divestment took place in 2009.

It has now affirmed that even more clearly at the end of 2011.

As they used to say in the olden days:

(1, 2)

Or, as we say nowadays:

Myth busted!

It’s high time that we put the divestment myth in the graveyard of history, where it belongs.

1 comment:

AvaTrimble said...

Myths do seem to stick around that business about the UMass library collapsing under the weight of the books. No one ever wants to hear it debunked - and there isn't even an ideological reason to *want* to believe that one!