Tobacco companies and apartheid South Africa are two institutions from which many universities, including the University of Michigan, voted to withdraw investments. Members of the University of Wisconsin at Platteville’s Faculty Senate hope to add the state of Israel to that list.
On Jan. 25, the senate voted to recommend that the University of Wisconsin system divest from companies that provide the Israeli army with weapons and other supplies.
The senate recommended that the Board of Regents remove investments from six companies — Catepillar, General Dynamics, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Northrop-Grunman and Raytheon — from the university’s trust fund.
There were two reasons for the recommendation, said Mark Evenson, UW-Platteville’s faculty senate chairman. “First, we don’t want to be making money off human rights offenses,” he said.
Evenson said the Israeli army has been accused by many groups of war crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The second reason involves language in UW’s policy that prohibits holding investments in companies that deal with organizations that discriminate against certain groups on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity. Evenson said Israel would fall under that category.
“I think it’s both symbolic and practical,” he said. “Frankly, the holdings in these companies are not huge. It really won’t change the U-W trust fund.”
The decision to recommend the Wisconsin system divest from Israel was passed by a vote of 7 to 6, with one abstention. Evenson plans to send a letter to the Wisconsin Board of Regents suggesting it consider divestment soon.
“We’re a relatively small campus, but in some ways this hasn’t happened on a big campus anywhere in the country,” Evenson said.
At the University of Michigan, the pro-Palestinian campus group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality leads a campaign to divest from Israel. SAFE is planning to make some kind of formal recommendation to the University that it divest from Israel, said fifth-year LSA student and SAFE vice-chair Salah Husseini.
Husseini said he would not go into details as to what channels SAFE plans to use because it does not want to reveal its strategy to opposing groups, but he reiterated why SAFE supports divestment.
“We should have a moral basis for our investments,” Husseini said. “We shouldn’t invest in things that result in the killing of people.”
SAFE has had several speakers on the subject of divestment this semester, Husseini said.
“It’s not a political issue for us,” he said. “It’s really an issue of human rights. It shouldn’t matter what side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict you’re on. There are millions of Palestinians whose rights are being violated and our money is helping to do that.”
But only on rare occasions does the University let politics determine its investment options, University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said, citing the University’s 1978 divestment from South Africa because of apartheid and the 2000 divestment from tobacco companies. On both of those occasions, holding those investments threatened the University’s values and mission, Peterson said.
“There is not enough evidence that that is happening in Israel to divest,” she said.
The issue has come up before at the University, most notably in Fall 2002, when students from more than 70 universities drew national attention by gathering on the Diag to protest universities investing in Israel. The rally prompted University President Mary Sue Coleman to release a statement saying the University had no plans to divest. At the time, of the University’s $3.4 billion investment portfolio, it had stock in two companies directly located in Israel with a total value of about $500,000.
In 2003, the issue came up again before the Michigan Student Assembly. Two students sponsored a resolution to suggest to the University Board of Regents that the University divest from Israel. MSA voted the resolution down by a near two-thirds majority.
“The vote was overwhelmingly against,” MSA President Jason Mironov said. “Since then there’s been some discussion, but no votes to pass resolutions have occurred.”
Divestment has not come up much on campus since then, said Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director of the University of Michigan Hillel chapter.
“This is old news,” he said. “No universities will actually divest from Israel, which is a good thing because there’s a lot to gain from business partnerships with Israel.”
Jessica Reisch, co-chair of the American Movement for Israel, said divesting from Israel would hinder the peace process.
“It counteracts any steps toward a lasting and viable peace,” she said. “It will hurt not only the Israeli’s economy but the Palestinian’s economy because it’s dependent on the Israelis.”
Reisch also said that divesting from Israel is a form of prejudice against Jews.
“I personally think that divesting from Israel is anti-Israeli and that it’s also anti-Semitic,” Reisch said.