On Monday, one group of students demanded that the University divest from companies that profit directly from the Gaza conflict. On Tuesday, another group did just the opposite, calling divestment a way to deliberately single out the state of Israel.
LionPAC, a pro-Israel campus group, and the Hillel Israel Committee—both of which are sub-groups of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel—directly responded to the newly formed Columbia Palestine Forum campaign by fliering campus in an effort to express their opposition to student calls for divestment from Israel. The Hillel also released a statement on apartheid and divestment, in which it stated its opposition to "the concept of Israel Apartheid and calls for divestment" and called the labeling of Israel as an apartheid state "wholly inappropriate."
The Columbia Palestine Forum—a campaign launched yesterday by organizers of the Columbia Community in Standing with Gaza—caused the pro-Israel groups to express the belief that divestment is a malicious attempt to associate Israel with some of the world's most evil regimes.
"The idea of divestment is that it associates Israel with South African apartheid," Brandon Hammer, Hillel's Israel Coordinator and CC '10, said. "When you hold divestment events during Israel Apartheid week, anyone can see the implications," he added, referring to the fact that the Columbia Palestine Forum formed during Israel Apartheid Week, an annual series of events used "to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system," according to the event's official Web site.
In stating their case, LionPAC and the Hillel Israel Committee have referred to University President Lee Bollinger's opposition to divestment from Israel. The group recalled a 2002 statement in which he opposed student calls for divestment from Israel, asserting, "As President of Columbia, ... I want to state clearly that I will not lend any support to this proposal. The petition alleges human rights abuses and compares Israel to South Africa at the time of apartheid, an analogy I believe is both grotesque and offensive." Representatives of the University could not respond to calls by press time.
LionPAC has also questioned what prompted the Columbia Palestine Forum to launch its initiatives in the first place. Columbia Palestine Forum group members said that their decision to release a list of demands to the University was spurred by the successful actions of Hampshire College students to move their administration to divest from Israel as a model for their own efforts. But members of LionPAC have countered the Columbia Palestine Forum's premise by making reference to a letter signed by the Hampshire College president in which he stated that the college's divestment was entirely unrelated to Israel's relationship with Palestine.
"We're attempting to educate the campus community about the facts on the issues," said LionPAC president Jacob Shapiro, GS/JTS '10, who is also an editor in Spectator's Sports section. "I think that's important given the leniency that's been given towards checking the facts and towards presenting the facts."
But Columbia Palestine Forum group members maintained that Israel is an apartheid state, referring to recent actions in the conflict between Gaza and Israel.
"One need only to look at Israel's brutal attack last month and the ongoing economic siege of Gaza, which is literally starving people," said Matt Swagler, a first year GSAS student and member of the International Socialist Organization. "And even though Palestinians and other Arabs inside Israel have the same legal rights on paper, in practice they face intense amounts of racism and discrimination in employment, housing and daily life."
Aaron Winslow, also first-year GSAS and an organizer of the Columbia Palestine Forum agreed, stating, "There are pretty clear parallels to apartheid and we're not the first people to make that claim."
Columbia/Barnard Hillel president Sarah Brafman, CC '10, also reflected on the language used by the new group. "When it comes to using terminology like apartheid and divestment, and divestment links a country to being a kind of regime, that's something that crosses the line."