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Petition for Princeton to divest sparks debate

Over 450 students and faculty have signed competing petitions in the last week about whether or not Princeton should divest from companies involved with Israel.

Forty-eight faculty members urged the University last Wednesday to divest its endowment funds from all companies that "contribute to or profit from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and continued siege of Gaza."


The petition, which was published in The Daily Princetonian as an advertisement, has elicited mixed responses from the University community. A counter-petition was signed by over 300 University students and published on Friday, encouraging "investment in both Israeli and Palestinian society as the foundation for peace."

A second counter-petition, spearheaded by the Center for Jewish Life, was published on Monday and signed by just over 100 individuals mainly consisting of faculty members.

The original faculty divestment letter was drafted by a committee of five faculty members in the history and Near Eastern studies departments: Molly Greene, Michael Laffan, Gyan Prakash, Cyrus Schayegh and Max Weiss, and invited tenured faculty to support divestment from companies such as Motorola and Hewlett-Packard. They are still adding signatories and plan to deliver the petition to the University administration before Thanksgiving.

Princeton University Investment Company president Andrew Golden was traveling and unavailable for comment. Gary Coombs, associate director of Princo, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Schayegh, associate professor of Near Eastern Studies and one of the authors of the petition, said that the main purpose of drafting this petition was to ignite constructive discussion on campus about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“I have family in Israel and I have friends in Israel, and I am very often talking to them, and it was very clear to me that things have reached a sort of a breaking point," he said. “I felt that something also outside the country needed to be done."


Schayegh said that he was drafting the petition because he believes that the only way forward is to have communities with high reputations, like universities and churches with high moral standing, show the American public that there is a way of putting pressure on the government to make it act on its proclamations of protest against the Israeli occupation of the settlements.

He added that not all five members of the committee had the same political opinions and that the petition represented a common denominator that everybody sufficiently agreed with.

Schayegh added that the committee focused on Israel because American companies have more investments in, and thus more influence on, Israel, and therefore affect it more than Palestine, even though the latter is just as responsible for the conflict. He also added that Israel deserves special attention, not only because of the financial support it receives from the United States, but also because it is currently both a democratic country and a colonizing power in the West Bank and in Gaza, which is a legal contradiction.

Laffan, a history professor and co-author of the petition, also said that Israel warranted more international attention than places like Myanmar and Syria, where issues are happening within the countries’ boundaries. The action in Israel, however, is also taking place in territories occupied by the country.

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“The level of sheer financial support built into that [American-Israeli] relationship is much more than other bilateral relationships in the world," he said, "so there are different stakes at play here."

Laffan added that even though he does not expect universal agreement with the petition, he does not anticipate discussion on campus to be acrimonious. Schayegh said that he has talked to people who are against the petition not because they think the current situation is perfect, but because they think other responses would be superior to a divestment letter.

In response to the petition, the CJL’s faculty and alumni published a response letter calling for more discussion and a focus on a two-sided approach to a solution. The student response, which appeared Friday, gathered 300 signatories to reject efforts such as boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns by tagging them as counterproductive.

Daniel Kurtzer, professor in Middle Eastern policy studies at the Wilson School, former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel and one of the signatories on the CJL’s letter, said that the petition reflected a basic misunderstanding of the underlying conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

“To choose sides at this time is to trivialize history," he said. “Indeed, if someone believes in divestment tactics — which I don’t — it would be wiser in a conflict situation like this one to divest from companies that operate in both societies.”

He added that he took a back seat to no one, including those who signed the divestment petition, in demanding a stronger U.S. role in Palestinian-Israeli resolution of the conflict.

“In fact, the correct address for any of these efforts is the U.S. government, and the petitions should demand that the United States work more affirmatively and energetically to try to bring about a peaceful settlement,” he said.

Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the CJL, said that the purpose of the response letter was twofold. The first purpose was to demonstrate the lack of consensus in the University community on this divestment issue, which is one of the primary criteria for the Resources Committee to consider a call for divestment. The second was to show that more than 100 signatories believe that Israel was unfairly singled out in the divestment letter.

“The Center for Jewish Life is interested in a pro-solution approach to this very complicated two-sided Israeli-Palestinian conflict," she said. "So when I saw the faculty petition to divest, I was struck by the one-sided blame based on Israel and the missed opportunity to promote a more constructive pro-solution conversation.”

Roth went on to praise the student response, which called for direct negotiation between Israeli and Palestinian parties as well as saying that divestment is counter-productive.

“When we saw the divestment letter, we — or at least I — felt that it was important that students on campus saw that many people disagreed with it,” Samuel Major ’16, president of Tigers for Israel and one of the leaders in drafting the student response, said.

Katie Horvath ’15, current board member of the Princeton Committee on Palestine, said that she was glad that faculty in tenured positions had started dialogue on the issue, but she was disappointed by the student response and the reaction to the divestment letter.

She explained that the email circulated among students who supported the counter-petition incorrectly implied that the petition called for divestment from companies operating in all of Israel, instead of divestment from companies that profit from or contribute to the occupation of the West Bank.

When asked about the future for the divestment petition, Laffan said that the committee that drafted the letter awaited a statement from University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, and that he personally preferred dialogue to divestment.

Horvath said that the Princeton Committee on Palestine was in the process of turning the faculty divestment letter into a petition that will be open to the entire University community.

Correction: This article contained a number of factual errors. Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly paraphrased a statement by Katie Horvath'15. She said that Israel is currently occupying the West Bank. Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly paraphrased another statement by Horvath about the extent to which students and faculty have petitioned for divestment. She said they have petitioned for divestment against companies that profit from or contribute to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. An earlier version of this article did not include appropriate context about an email circulated by signatories of one of the counter-petitions. The 'Prince' regrets the errors.