Protest or Prejudice? ; Campaigns to Divest Colleges and Universities of Stocks in Companies Doing Business in Israel Are Gaining Momentum - and Focusing Attention on Anti-Semitism, Free Speech, and Academic Freedom

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Between classes and homework, Fadi Kiblawi, a senior at the University of Michigan, spends his free time researching US companies that do business in Israel and whose stock is owned by his university.

What he's found so far is $151 million invested in 45 companies. His goal: to persuade the school to dump those stocks. Such a move, he and others hope, would begin to put economic pressure on Israel to soften its policies toward Palestinians.

The effort might seem far-fetched. Only last month, the new president of the university, Mary Sue Coleman, responded to the campaign by stating she had no intention of seeking divestment from Israel. But Mr. Kiblawi, who was raised in the United States by Palestinian parents, is undeterred. This weekend, he and his supporters will host a national conference on divesting from Israel at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. About 500 people, including students and speakers from scores of universities, are expected to attend, he says.

And support for his cause is apparently growing. Petitions calling for universities to disinvest from Israel are circulating across the University of California's 11 campuses and at least 23 others nationwide. Roughly 7,000 individuals have signed the requests, organizers say - and some predict the number of campaigns will mushroom as the school year progresses.

But opposition to the campaign is growing swiftly as well. What's resulted is an intense debate about the issue itself, as well as the role the university plays in supporting academic freedom and open discussion about topics that touch on deeply held beliefs and sensitivities.

The divest-from-Israel campaign, which began in earnest at the University of California at Berkeley this spring, is resonating in academia and beyond. Princeton, Yale, Cornell and others have petition campaigns. As of last week, 130 faculty, 216 students, and 237 staff and alumni at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had signed a joint online petition calling for divesting from Israel. Harvard has an estimated $614 million in such investments, according to the petitioners. MIT has about $174 million.

Still, protests against such petitions are gaining momentum. A counter-petition at Harvard and MIT has already gathered more than 5,800 signatures (including 439 Harvard professors and 143 MIT faculty). Key figures have also spoken out against divestment.

Charges of anti-Semitism

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers made headlines when, at a prayer meeting with students and faculty on Sept. 17, he warned of an "upturn in anti-Semitism" around the world. But what really grabbed people's attention was his criticism of divestment supporters on campus.

"Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities," said Mr. Summers, who is also Harvard's first Jewish president. "Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent." Those comments hit home. With Harvard often leading on emerging academic issues, the idea that thoughtful signers could be unintentional supporters of anti-Semitism sent shock waves throughout higher education. Indeed, for some Harvard and MIT faculty signers, Summers's assertion that some were unwittingly involved in an anti-Semitic act was just too much.

Daniel Fox, a professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT who helped organize the petition drive on his campus and who is Jewish, was surprised by Summers's comments.

"There is nothing anti-Semitic about the petition, neither in effect nor in intent," he wrote to the Monitor in an e-mail. "At a time when anti-Arab sentiments are rampant, I find it somewhat disturbing to hear an educational leader 'singling out' anti- Semitism while ignoring all other forms of racism. …