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Bill Youmans | The Arab American News | March 17, 2007

Prominent call for divestment at Howard

Activists calling for ending financial support for Israel welcomed a victory at a university in Washington, DC. The faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University voted overwhelmingly to call on the university's board of trustees to divest from Israel.

The faculty at this historically Black institution came down with a 25 to 2 vote in favor of divestment, beginning with the identification of university "funds that are being invested in 'offending' companies that are offering material support to Israeli Occupation."

The March 8th call was introduced by David Schwartzman, a biology professor of Jewish origin. He told "The Arab American News," there was not much opposition, except by the college's Dean, who refused to put divestment on the agenda. He plans on introducing a similar resolution to the faculty Senate this spring.

He sponsored the measure in the hope that "these resolutions start spreading around the country and generate action comparable to the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s." Also, he wants to "give hope to young Palestinians and to see Americans and Jews like myself taking the right position."

The Arts and Sciences faculty vote was an important step for the few divestment activists at Howard University. This vote actually took place without a vibrant movement on campus. Professor Schwartzman recognized that more activism is needed to get the Board of Trustees, the highest decision-making body at the university, to consider the divestment call.

The resolution was modeled on two different bills. It borrowed language and arguments from a faculty senate bill passed at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville campus nearly two years ago. It also drew on a divestment statement passed last year against Sudan, for the continuing violations in the Darfur region.

There have been some victories for divestment activists around the world, including school government, church, and labor union resolutions. Last year, England's largest union of instructors in higher education, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, called on the union's 67,000 members to sever ties with Israeli professors and academic institutions that fail to distance themselves from Israel's policies towards the Palestinians.

The Ontario branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the country's largest union, voted unanimously on May 27, 2006 to urge an economic boycott of Israel. The bill calling for boycott and divestment represents the will of 210,000 members, nearly half of the union's entire national membership. Divestment means the union's pension fund will shed investments in Israel.

Student governments at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, and Wayne State University in Detroit have passed important resolutions in the past several years.

However, the Sudan movement has fared much better. Major academic institutions such as Harvard and Yale have divested from companies doing business with Sudan. Six states are divesting their pension funds from companies invested in Sudan. The Howard University resolution shows that the Sudan divestment movement is serving as a useful precedent for Israel divestment activists.

Professor Schwartzman's initiative is one more step in his long history of activism. He railed against the American invasion of Vietnam as a student in the 1960s, and was arrested for civil disobedience while protesting at both the South African and Israeli embassies in the 1980s. He is currently involved in the DC Green party, which advocates for DC statehood and equal representation in government, among other issues. The national Green Party backed divestment from Israel in 2005.

The Divestment movement needs victories such as this vote. Pro-Israeli activists are pushing divestment from politically weak, impoverished nations such as Sudan and Iran. Divestment activists can gain from the increased use of divestment as a legitimate tactic for morally responsible investing. In fact, many pro-Israel activists fear just this. "The Jewish Week" reported that a debate ensued at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs' national meeting. Critics of the Sudan movement "fear that an economic boycott of any country could be used against Israel, itself the target of divestment efforts."

Palestine solidarity advocates should re-insert Israel into debates about divestment. If anything, this will only further its rightful association with the worst human rights offenders.

Editor's note: Howard University President Patrick Swygert rejected the resolution outright.

"Without qualification, Howard University and I oppose any action calling for a divestiture of university funds from certain U.S.-based companies doing business with Israel," said Swygert in his letter to Thomas Kahn, president of AJC's Washington, D.C. Chapter.

"President Swygert's swift and unqualified opposition to this regrettable action is a testament to Howard University's dedication to the noblest ideals of higher education, fairness, and open dialogue," said Maron.

Will Youmans is the Washington, DC-based writer for The Arab-American News

Posted on 17-03-2007

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