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MIT, Harvard Faculty Petition Universities’ Israel Investments

By Vicky Hsu


Members of the MIT and Harvard University faculties are petitioning both universities to stop investing in U.S. companies that currently invest in Israel.

Their proposal calls for the removal of financial support for Israel by the universities until Israel “withdraws all forces and vacates all existing settlements in the occupied territories, ends legal torture, and either allows refugees to return to their homeland or compensate them for their losses.”

To date 32 MIT faculty members and about 12 Harvard faculty members have signed the joint petition, which is modeled after a similar petition submitted to the administration of Princeton University on April 18, said Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Nancy Kanwisher ’80. Kanwisher is coordinating the joint effort between the universities.

“The conditions are very reasonable, and are ones that any law abiding state should follow,” Kanwisher said. “The divesting numbers are going to be substantial for MIT and Harvard, but if there exists a cost for supporting human rights, I am fine with that.”

Faculty opinions differ

Professor Olivier Blanchard, head of the Department of Economics, called the campaign “insane.”

“This is basically shooting at the wrong target,” he said. “Many of us are not happy with the policies of the state of Israel, but I don’t see why we would punish the workers, firms, and scientists who do research in Israel. This is a very, very stupid reaction that makes no sense. I wish the U.S. government would do more, and put more pressure on Israel, but this is the wrong way to go about it.”

Institute Professor Noam A. Chomsky said that “It is really the United States and Israel versus Palestine. The ratio of the amount of U.S. aid to Israel and to Palestine is not symmetrical at all.

“Divestment will be a long and slow process, but there are actions that can be taken which are crucial and have immediate effects, like the suspension of arms sales,” Chomsky added.

Chomsky described the petition as “opposing U.S. involvement in an illegal and brutal military occupation,” alleging that “systematic torture has been carried out by the Israelis against Palestinians in the occupied territories.”

Joshua Angrist, a professor in economics, said he disagreed with “the substance of the petition.”

“Everybody is entitled to their views, and it is legitimate for faculty members to circulate and sign the petition, but I don’t believe that the protest is warranted,” Angrist said. “I suspect that there won’t be much support for this petition. I feel that this is a very biased, misguided view.”

“My goal for working on the petition is to open up discussion on Israeli policy and U.S. support of those policies in the Middle East,” Kanwisher said. “I am shocked at how utterly silent people have been. The ensuing discussion will be extremely contentious, but the purpose of academia is to discuss these issues.”

Ken Natayama, a professor of psychology at Harvard, agreed that “the conditions listed in the petition are possibly attainable. The goal is more educational than political. It is a way of bringing people together.

“There exists so little information about the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The media tilts towards Israel about twenty to one,” he said.

“I don’t know how feasible divesting is, but keeping the pressure on the university is important. The intention is not to antagonize people, but to keep the viewpoint on the table. There exists very little discussion at the university of this issue,” Natayama said.

Princeton admins unmoved

“I hope that MIT and Harvard won’t take any action towards this. I will be surprised if the administrations do react,” Angrist said.

Kanwisher admitted that she “has no idea how the administration will respond to the petition.”

Vincent Loyd, a junior at Princeton University, said the petition at Princeton had not received a positive response from the administration.

“The administration will not consider divesting until several conditions are met,” he said. “The two major conditions are that first the administration has to see a consensus on campus about this issue, and second that there exists an ongoing campaign for this cause that last at least around two years.”

“The administration ought to be making this decision based on moral and ethical grounds, and not procedures. In the early nineties, Princeton set up procedures to determine when the university will divest from a country. They [the administration], of course, had only one experience, with South Africa. I think they weren’t expecting to do it again,” he said.