Stanford’s distance from the Middle East does not exclude our campus from the polarization of the ideological conflict surrounding the region. On February 27, the ASSU Undergraduate Senate heard arguments from both sides on a proposed resolution urging Stanford to divest from Israel. The Senate will be voting on the matter before its term ends in May.
Omar Shakir, president of Students Confronting Apartheid in Israel (SCAI), gave a PowerPoint presentation arguing that policies of the state of Israel and its actions in the Palestinian territories are comparable to those of apartheid South Africa. These include engaging in an illegal occupation, discriminatory laws, wanton demolition of homes, the building of an aggressive security barrier, and impeding the daily lives and livelihood of Palestinians. He argued that it is Stanford’s moral obligation to divest from companies that contribute to these practices, urging the senate to pass the resolution to that effect. Andrew Ehrich, president of the Jewish Students Association (JSA), gave a speech arguing that SCAI’s position mischaracterizes the current state of affairs in Israel, that divestment is not the path to peace. He urged the Senate reject the proposal for divestment and instead consider alternatives that would be more effective.
One of Shakir’s most poignant arguments was that the wall separating Israeli occupied territories from Palestinian settlements in the West Bank has not been built along the internationally recognized 1967 boundary between Israeli and Palestinian lands, but encroaches upon Palestinian land and water resources in what he sees as an attempt by Israel to illegally annex further terrain. Ehrich responded that attacks on Israeli civilians have gone down 90% since the wall was built, and noted that this reduction in terror deaths also necessitated fewer Israeli military incursions into Palestinian territory, thus also saving Palestinian civilian lives.
SCAI’s petition recommends divestment form all military companies whose weapons or machinery are used by Israel’s forces in the occupied territories, noting that this violates UN Resolution 242. Ehrich responded that this would undermine the legitimacy of Israel’s right to protect itself. Shakir further argued that the goal of SCAI’s campaign is not divestment from Israel as a country, but from individual companies whose products and services play a role in the activities addressed by SCAI’s grievances. Their list includes Boeing, Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin and McDonalds. Ehrich described this tactic as a smokescreen that disguises the true intent of the divestment campaign: sabotaging the peace process by squelching debate and taking a one-sided approach to the issue.
Ehrich also argued against the proposed resolution on the grounds that it would alienate Stanford’s large Jewish student body and would make them uncomfortable expressing their views. By taking a unilateral stance on this issue and speaking for the entire student body, Ehrich fears the Senate would make it more difficult to have balanced debate on campus. Shakir responded that SCAI’s proposal has already elicited serious debate, and has fostered that very debate Ehrich calls for.
Many have questioned whether the proposed bill keeps the Senate from its responsibilities. But, given the precedent of Senate resolutions encouraging divestment from South Africa and Darfur, the latter of which occurred in 2005, the divestment resolution would probably fall under the Senate’s jurisdiction.
These cases were, however, far less morally ambiguous. Both pitted a helpless and relatively blameless victim group against a powerful oppressor. Though Israel’s actions are hardly beyond reproach, the region’s only liberal democracy can also make a legitimate claim to protecting itself against a terrorist threat that threatens its very existence. The issue remains highly contentious, and the best solution unclear. What is called for is fair and open-minded discussion, not polarizing action.
But even if the case for divestment were morally clear, it remains unclear whether the Senate would have a true mandate for action. This resolution does not have the support of the student body behind it. SCAI’s petition in support of divestment has gathered 521 signatures as of this writing. The Stanford Israel Alliance’s petition has 1364 signatures. The Senate’s task as a elected representative body is to represent Stanford’s undergraduates. SCAI must convince the Senate that the student body does in fact support divestment, which they have yet to do.
For now, we face many pressing campus issues: the OSA’s clampdown on social life, a lack of transparency in the Old Union renovation process, tuition hikes, and more. Hopefully, in its last few months in office the 8th Undergraduate Senate will leave behind a legacy of addressing these issues.