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A Flawed Argument for Divestment

A group of MIT and Harvard faculty leading a petition calling for the two universities to stop investing in companies that invest in Israel has gained national attention. Similar efforts exist at Princeton, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan, among others. The petition, now signed by more than 440 faculty, staff, students, and alumni, cites “human rights abuses against Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government” and the actions of Israel’s military as reasons for withdrawing support for Israel in the form of corporate investments. The Tech believes the argument for divestment is flawed on several levels, and that divestment would hurt MIT without benefit to the cause of peace.

The petition specifically calls on MIT and Harvard to “divest from Israel, and from U.S. companies that sell arms to Israel.” Among the companies from which MIT and Harvard are being asked to divest is Boeing, whose Apache helicopters are used by the Israeli military -- a direct link to the current conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, The Tech is not convinced that the majority of the companies listed have any such link to the conflict. The list includes companies whose nature does not warrant divestment -- these are not defense contractors. Rather, companies including Microsoft Corp., McDonald’s Corp., Lucent Technologies, IBM, Intel Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., General Motors Corp., and Coca-Cola Co. are listed as having ties to Israel. In many cases, companies such as McDonald’s simply operate franchises in Israel -- these are global corporations with operations in a highly developed economy.

On a practical level, divesting from these companies would do MIT and its employees a disservice. Divestment from the list of stocks presented by the petitioners would mean that MIT would relinquish its positions in a handful of blue-chip stocks. Using employees’ retirement funds to make a political statement is a questionable policy.

Furthermore, MIT’s investments in companies like Microsoft, General Motors and Hewlett Packard go far beyond holding corporate stocks and bonds. MIT is involved in strategic partnerships with these companies which bring in millions of dollars that increase research budgets and fund stipends for the Institute’s graduate students. Ending all ties with corporations connected to Israel -- a much stronger statement than simply selling off stocks -- is a move MIT cannot afford to make.

The call for MIT and Harvard to divest requires a significant alteration in the schools’ endowments and employee retirement funds. One might make the argument that such a change is warranted when taking a clear moral stand, but The Tech does not find the Middle East conflict to offer a clear moral distinction. In opposing the divestment petition, The Tech does not attempt to justify questionable actions of the Israeli government. Rather, a full view of the situation shows misdeeds on both sides.

If, however, one is to believe that MIT and Harvard should sever all ties to Israel, one must call for an end to ties with the U.S. government. The United States supports Israel as an ally both militarily and financially, yet the petitioners do not call for MIT to cut all funding and research ties with the Department of Defense or other government agencies. MIT would practically cease to exist without government funding as the United States remains the biggest supporter of research at MIT. Thus independence from the United States is impossible in practice. However, without calling for such action, the petition seems somewhat incomplete.

It is unlikely that MIT will act on the divestment petition, especially considering the fact that MIT did not divest from South Africa in the face of Apartheid -- an issue with less moral ambiguity. However, the petitioners are succeeding in another regard. They have drawn attention to the crisis and sparked debate on campus, as evidenced by last Monday’s pro-divestment teach-in and the anti-divestment counter-petition signed by more than 2500 faculty, staff, student, and alumni from MIT and Harvard.

However, the counter-petition accuses the divestment petition of being one-sided without offering an even-handed alternative. The counter-petition, justifying Israeli military actions as self-defense, places too much blame for the violence on Palestinians. What has been missing from the debate thus far is an arena in which all opinions are equally represented.

With Palestine Awareness Week underway, the time is right for an open forum, similar to the series on Apartheid that took place years ago, where people with different, passionate opinions can debate the divestment issue. Such a discussion series would foster constructive discussion rather than the rhetoric which so often permeates the Israeli-Palestinian question.

The editorial board reached its decision with a vote of 7-2.