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Some on Harvard, MIT Faculties Urge Divestment in Israel

6 May 2002, Boston Globe,
by Jenna Russell


A teach-in on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology today is the latest development in an ongoing protest of Israeli policy by some MIT and Harvard University professors.

According to the Web site where the petition is posted,, Harvard has more than $600 million invested in US companies that do business in Israel, including McDonald's Corp., International Paper, General Electric, and IBM.

About 75 faculty members at the two institutions have signed an online petition asking the schools to divest from companies doing business in Israel until its forces withdraw from occupied territories, among other conditions. Noam Chomsky, the well-known linguist and activist, will speak at today's event, along with other critics of Israel.

Nancy Kanwisher, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive science and one of the petition's organizers, said she had been ''politically dormant'' until she saw photographs of the Jenin refugee camp, where Palestinians allege Israeli forces massacred hundreds of civilians and violated the international laws of war during a three-week siege.

''I looked to see where the protest was, and I couldn't find it,'' she said. ''I was shocked.''

Working with a Harvard faculty friend and input from Chomsky, Kanwisher modeled the petition after one organized at Princeton University. It states that signers are ''appalled by the human rights abuses against Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government,'' and that they ''find the recent attacks on Israeli citizens unacceptable and abhorrent.''

''But these do not and should not negate the human rights of the Palestinians,'' the petition adds.

Supporting faculty include members of MIT's departments of linguistics and philosophy, architecture, literature, political science, and mathematics. At Harvard, professors of classics, biology, psychology, and Greek and Latin are among those who have signed the petition.

As of yesterday, 40 faculty members at MIT and 39 at Harvard had added their names. Another 81 students, staff, and alumni of the schools have also signed.

Paul Nemirovsky, a doctoral student at MIT who grew up in Israel, said he thinks many of the professors who signed the petition don't understand both sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He wrote a response pointing out that other nations responsible for ''infinitely larger'' civilian casualties haven't been similarly condemned, and sent it out by e-mail, he said.

''I felt hurt for who I am, as an Israeli and a Jew,'' he said of reading the petition. ''It was the first time in my adult life that I ever felt these things mattered ... What I really hated about it was the fact that they're using the name of an institution that is by definition apolitical.''

At Harvard, a rally protesting the petition drive is scheduled for noon today in front of the Science Center. After hearing details about the movement in the last few days, some students have labeled it hypocritical.

''It's ridiculous,'' said Paul Gottesman, who recently stepped down as president of the zionist Jewish Law Student Association at Harvard. ''The people who are involved in this divestment campaign are basically trying to impose economic sanctions on Israel. These are the same people who continually oppose economic sanctions against countries like Cuba and Iraq. So I wonder what their motivations are.''

And Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz warns, ''Any effort to divest from Israel would fail because it would destroy any university that attempted it. Faculty would leave, students would refuse to attend, the contributors would refuse to contribute.

''I would not remain at any university that would divest from Israel,'' he declared.

Kanwisher acknowledges the controversy and said she's not looking for divestment anytime soon. She pointed to the long years campus activists spent protesting investment in pro-apartheid South Africa.

Harvard is widely remembered for what was seen as a slow and reluctant response to the campaign against South Africa.

''It would be a mistake to expect any immediate outcome,'' Kanwisher said. ''If people become more willing to question Israeli policy, that will be a step forward.''

She said she's been contacted by people at other universities, including Tufts, where there is interest in beginning similar efforts.

According to the Web site where the petition is posted,, Harvard has more than $600 million invested in US companies that do business in Israel, including McDonald's Corp., International Paper, General Electric, and IBM. Numbers posted for MIT are preliminary, but show a smaller level of investment.