When Northwestern University’s student senate passed a resolution last year asking the university to divest from six corporations that it said contributed to the violation of Palestinians’ human rights, freshman Ross Krasner was hurt and surprised.
The rhetoric of the measure, portraying Israel as an oppressor, was more extreme than what he had expected. Krasner decided to become more involved with the campus pro-Israel group, Wildcats for Israel, shortly thereafter becoming its president.
Now, 22 months after the student senate vote, Krasner feels confident the university won’t heed the resolution’s divestment call, and he has shifted his extracurricular focus. He now serves as a student senator, a forum where he can advocate for a range of causes he supports, including but not limited to Israel.
“We knew the whole time the university wasn’t going to divest,” said Krasner, now a junior. Anti-Israel activists, he said, have “lost their rallying cry. They’ve lost their thing to mobilize around.”
The vote at Northwestern was one of three huge campus victories scored by the BDS movement — which aims to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — within two weeks in February 2015. It was preceded by similar votes by the University of California Student Association, which is purposed with representing all U.C. students across the state, and in Stanford University’s undergraduate senate.
But two years later, the wave seems to have receded. Of about a dozen BDS resolutions passed since November 2015, only two or three have come at major universities. A BDS resolution at the University of Michigan failed on Nov. 15.
Perhaps most significant, not one university has actually divested from Israel or companies targeted for doing business in the West Bank.
Kenneth Waltzer, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, a 350-member group of university faculty who oppose BDS, said divestment is a nonstarter for many university boards of trustees because it would violate their commitment to invest funds in a way that would best serve the school. There is not enough consensus on divestment, he said, for it to override concerns of fiduciary responsibility.
“University presidents are responsible,” said Waltzer, an emeritus history professor at Michigan State University who co-authored an op-ed in J. nine months ago (www.jweekly.com/article/full/77233). “Students can get as excited as they want for a particular issue. They don’t have a responsibility for where it goes. Do we want to cut off all our ties with Israel? It’s a much more complicated issue.”
National pro-Israel groups have invested millions of dollars in fighting BDS since 2010. In June 2015, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson raised a reported $20 million at a summit launching a new group to fight BDS on campus. That same month, the Israeli government pledged some $25 million in anti-BDS funding over 10 years. In soliciting the money, leaders of national organizations portrayed BDS movements as the central threat to Israel on campus.
Pro-Israel groups now believe the threat has shifted as BDS has failed to make concrete gains in terms of divestment. They say that anti-Israel groups have pivoted from pushing divestment resolutions to protesting, and in some cases disrupting, pro-Israel events and speakers on campus (such as Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s attempt to speak April 6 at San Francisco State University).
Wendel Rubinstein, a 2016 University of Chicago graduate who campaigned for divestment, said that BDS activism may have scaled back as students — especially following the election of Donald Trump — are refocusing their efforts on demonstrating on behalf of immigrants and vulnerable minorities.
“I think what students have been focused on this year, especially in light of the election results, is building coalitions and solidarity,” Rubinstein said.
Last month, more than a year and a half after its student divestment vote, Northwestern announced the establishment of an Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility. The committee will advise the university on how to vote at shareholder meetings, and will include four student representatives.
Krasner is concerned that anti-Israel students will be appointed to the committee, but still isn’t worried that his school will divest from Israel. More troubling to him is the marginalizing of pro-Israel students in campus social justice movements — something he has experienced.
Last year, when students at the University of Missouri were protesting racial injustice on their campus, Krasner co-wrote a resolution supporting the protests as a Northwestern student senator. But he was pressured to withdraw his name from the resolution, he said, after a senator supporting a black student group on campus, as well as the campus Students for Justice in Palestine, objected to his pro-Israel activism.
Krasner called the incident “a very hurtful thing that happened to me.
“I’m constantly learning about what it means to be an ally to marginalized communities,” he said. “As someone who says, ‘No, I don’t support BDS,’ it’s a challenge I wasn’t prepared for coming in.”