At the University of Texas, a small group of students is taking an unusual interest in the school's investment portfolio. Once a week, about 10 meet to look it over. They are not hunting for stock tips. What they are hunting for is companies that do substantial business with Israel. Students sympathetic to the Palestinian cause have been circulating a petition around the Austin campus since July, calling on the university to sell off the stock of those firms. "You hear President Bush calling Ariel Sharon a man of peace," says Andy Gallagher, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. "Then you start looking at the facts, and it plays on your soul."
At a time when Israeli tanks have repeatedly rolled into the West Bank in response to terrorist bombings, a new kind of pro-Palestinian college activism is spreading. Guerrilla theater is one of the tactics. At the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, students dressed like Israeli soldiers have set up mock checkpoints on campus to "harass" students playing Palestinians. But the chief focus of anti-Israel feeling is the divestment campaign, which has been gaining momentum--and opponents. Petitions for divestment have circulated at more than 50 campuses, including Tufts and Cornell. In the University of California system, more than 7,000 students and faculty members have signed. A pro-divestment group at Princeton has singled out 16 companies as targets, including General Electric, IBM and McDonald's.
"Before, the only tool we could use was a rally or an editorial," says Rita Hamad, a senior at Harvard, where a divestment petition with M.I.T. has attracted 565 signatures. "Now we have [divestment], which might actually make a difference." (Activists claim that Harvard has more than $600 million invested in companies that have interests in Israel.) Some of the divestment activists come from the anti-globalism movement or from campus groups for Muslim students. A few of the groups, like those at the University of Michigan and U.C. Berkeley, take pains to point out that they have Jewish students among their supporters.
Schools are not rushing to sell right now, but supporters hope that divestment is an idea that will take off the way it did in the 1980s when the target was South Africa. They plan a national conference for Oct. 12-14 at the University of Michigan to design ways to advance the new campaign.
The movement thus far has pressed up against a question that didn't complicate the fight against apartheid: At what point does opposition to Israeli policy slide into the mud fields of old-fashioned anti-Semitism? At U.C. Berkeley on the first night of Passover, someone threw a cinder block through the glass door of the campus Hillel center for Jewish students and spray painted the words F--- JEWS on the wall. Around the same time, Jewish students were assaulted on their way to or from campus. Though there's no evidence to suggest a link, the divestment campaign turned into an ugly scuffle two weeks later when 79 protestors (half of them students) were arrested after seizing a campus building where a midterm exam was under way.