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Faculty Hold Teach-in on Divestment To Build Support for Joint Campaign

By Brian Loux


Harvard and MIT faculty held a “teach-in” yesterday in 26-100 to draw support for a petition demanding that both universities divest from Israel and companies that sell arms to the country.

The event was largely organized by MIT Professor of Brain and Cognitive Science Nancy G. Kanwisher ’80 and Harvard Professor Ken Nakayama, two of the four original drafters of the petition. Many of the speakers discussed Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and violence against Palestinians.

The petition, signed by students and faculty from both universities, also demands that the U.S. government desist in the selling of arms to Israel.

Gradzinsky discusses democracy

Speakers included professors from MIT and Harvard, as well as Professor Yosef Gradzinsky from Tel Aviv University, whose speech was entitled “The Only Democracy in the Middle East.”

“That phrase is supposed to be the end all on discussion on Israel,” Gradzinsky said. “I am here to say that it is not enough.”

He argued that the three principles that created Israel were the desire to be democratic, the desire to be Jewish, and the desire to be secure, citing the Israeli constitution and quotes from former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. When these desires need to be balanced, he said, democracy has lost most of the time.

Gradzinsky also criticized the recent assault on terror cells to be a front, since the siege of Ramallah was militarily insignificant but symbolically devastating and even hurt Israel’s overall campaign, as Palestinian soldiers were able to move to Jenin.

He concluded his talk reminding the audience that not supporting the Israeli government does not mean one is against the Israeli people.

Chomsky discusses U.S. actions

Headline speaker and Institute Professor Noam A. Chomsky spoke about the United States’ role in the Middle East in a talk entitled “Our Role, Our Responsibilities.”

“We must put up a mirror and look at ourselves, which is always important,” Chomsky began. After discussing recent events in the region, Chomsky said that “we are extreme racists; here the death of a Palestinian leader doesn’t matter but when a leader of a country we support dies it’s atrocious.” Chomsky was referring to the assassination of the Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Abu Ali Mustafa and the subsequent assassination of Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi.

“Eisenhower’s men noted that the perception in the world is that we support status quo governments because we want to maintain oil resources. Well, there’s not much to say because that assumption is accurate,” Chomsky said. Citing past attempts from both the United Nations and Arab states to create treaties but a consistent refusal for U.S. endorsement, he concluded that the unilateral U.S. rejectionism is very dangerous and that the U.S. must respond on “economic, military, residential, and diplomatic levels ... and Israel will have no choice but to agree.” While problems would still persist, Chomsky said, the situation would create a starting point for future peace.

Questions for Chomsky evoked some heated debate. One audience member requested Chomsky call on Arab states to stop suicide bombings. “We should stop suicide bombers,” he replied. “We should stop sending them bombs, we should stop sending them money, we should divest from suicide bombing governments.” This elicited a large round of applause from the crowd.

Mixed reaction to talk

“The talk was very interesting. I liked hearing what Chomsky had to say about the coverage of the world media and the U.S. population’s silent consent, and [Gradzinsky’s] ideas on why peace failed,” said local resident Stefan Debrito. “It has made me want to learn more about the situation in Israel before I create my own opinions.”

A large number of attendees were dissatisfied with the talk, calling it “one-sided” and lacking comment on the rise in anti-semitism in Europe.

MIT Hillel organized a booth outside the lecture hall to offer a different perspective on the events in the Middle East. “Under the auspices of MIT, some students and faculty have deceptively labeled this a ‘teach-in,’” said Hillel President Andrew M. Goldsweig ’03. “We felt it would be appropriate to represent other opinions of the measures.”

Hillel, along with other individuals stationed outside the hall, distributed flyers describing opinions on recent Israeli or Palestinian actions, with an almost equal number arguing for and against divestment from Israel. “It is terribly important to separate academics and industry from interpersonal conflict,” Goldsweig said.

Petition faces other challenges

The petition correspondingly has its fair share of dissenters from students and faculty. “In a long standing historical dispute, it is impossible to pick a point and blame a side for a problem,” said Professor of Political Science Stephen M. Meyer, who chose not to sign the petition.

Petitioners remained steadfast. “The situation is extremely clear. This is a group of occupied people that is not cared for and the situation is terribly counterproductive and damaging to the U.S.,” said MIT Professor Mary C. Potter. “If I thought there was ambiguity, I wouldn’t support it. The issue is extremely misunderstood by the U.S. public which you see by the actions of the House and Senate.”

Many petitioners are aware that the petition will have very little clout with MIT administrators. “I don’t think it’s terribly likely,” said Potter, citing MIT’s inaction during anti-apartheid boycotts of South Africa. “Nonetheless, I think it’s important to promote the idea so there be discussion in the community. If we remain silent, we are culpable.”

Potter said that there will most likely be other events to follow, though presently there are none scheduled. “There was some urgency to start on the petition and teach in. All our energy was devoted to those two things,” she said.

Before the teach-in, 42 MIT faculty and 49 Harvard faculty had signed the petition, along with 72 students.