UC Berkeley’s new chancellor disavows Columbia divestment petition his name was on

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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Divestment from companies who profit from Israeli human rights violations on college campuses is on the move across the country. It’s sparking a backlash from advocates for Israel. And since California, in many ways, is ground zero for this effort at the moment, it should come as no surprise that a college in the state has taken it upon itself to blatantly pander to Israel lobby groups.

The University of California, Berkeley has a new chancellor coming in, Nicholas Dirks. Berkeley attracted international attention for its divestment effort in 2010, which passed but was ultimately defeated by a veto after Israel lobby groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee exerted pressure on student representatives.

But Dirks has some dirt on him, at least from the perspective of Israel lobby groups: his name was on a 2002 petition that circulated at Columbia University calling for divestment. The petition called on Columbia University “to divest from all companies that manufacture arms and other military hardware sold to Israel, as well from companies that sell such arms and military hardware to Israel.” Dirks’ name was on the petition, along with over 100 other faculty members.

But now, as Dirks prepares to take the reins of Berkeley, he says he “saw my name on a list and asked it to be removed. Truth is, I do not support divestment as a strategy for the university. I don’t support divestment with respect to Israel.” So he says he never signed the petition.

Regardless of whether he did or didn’t, what’s noteworthy is that UC Berkeley has now published a transcript of part of a conversation Dirks had with Dan Mogulof of Berkeley’s Office of Public Affairs (the video of it is above). This part of the transcript published deals solely with divestment and Israel–a clear signal to Israel lobby groups in California. The signal is: you have no reason to worry about Dirks; he’s on our side.

Here’s part of the transcript:

DAN MOGULOF: Floating around on the Internet is a claim that at some point in your past, you know, you signed a petition calling for Columbia to divest in all things Israel. And there is a lot of information surrounding that, or misinformation surrounding that, and I want to give you an opportunity to let us know exactly what happened there, what your role was and what your sort of philosophy is about sort of divestment type efforts insofar as the Middle East, or any other place in the world is concerned.

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Right. Well, when that particular petition was being circulated, I was chair of the department of anthropology and in fact, at some point, saw my name on a list and asked it to be removed. Truth is, I do not support divestment as a strategy for the university. I don’t support divestment with respect to Israel.

At the same time, many of my colleagues felt very strongly about this and many of them signed a petition, and it circulated widely at the time, which was 2002. There were, after that, all sorts of other controversies that developed about the climate for Jewish students on Columbia’s campus, about the nature of instruction and the department of Middle East studies, and indeed about the atmosphere at Columbia more generally, in which it seemed very difficult for some students to find safe spaces in which to talk about Israel where they didn’t feel that the basic context in which they found themselves wasn’t hugely not just anti-Israel, but by implication, anti-Jewish, and anti-Semitic. The first thing that we needed to do, of course, was to ensure that no one was made personally uncomfortable on the basis of their religion, as I said, their ethnicity, their entity. We, in fact, and it was my responsibility as the executive vice president for the arts and sciences, convened an unprecedented faculty committee to look into some of the allegations that had been made.

One thing to note is that Mogulof has his facts wrong. The Columbia petition was not to “divest [from] all things Israel.” It was a call for divestment from companies doing business with the Israeli military.

The conversation on divestment also turns to Dirks’ wife–who, heaven forbid, also signed the petition:

DM: So before we move on, I want to drag you back to the divestment issue, if you will. There are also reports that at one time your wife signed a petition, a divestment petition calling on Columbia to divest in all things Israel. Do you think that’s an appropriate issue? Is that something that people should be concerned about, what your wife may or may not have done in the past?

ND: Well, first of all, let me say that my wife is a ferociously independent person. She has many views, some of which I share and some of which I don’t. We have a long history of being able to talk about things and have different perspectives and even different views. That being said, she did, back in 2002, sign one of the divestment petitions that was circulating around Columbia, before she had either thought very much about the issue or for that matter really had any sense at all of what putting her signature to that document might mean. And she has subsequently thought a great deal about this issue, and she has regretted signing this. She has changed her position completely on issues of divestment. And indeed, I think she feels that it was an unfortunate and ill-thought moment in her own life and participation in things at Columbia.

That being said, I need to emphasize again that she has her views. They are not germane to the kinds of things that I believe that are part of being the next chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. And I hope that she’ll be given the independence and the respect necessary for her to have her role on the faculty, as a member of the community and indeed as my partner as I move to Berkeley.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Daily Forward has a good piece up on how divestment is on the move, marking a setback for Israel advocates. More from the Forward:

When the student government legislature at the University of California, Irvine voted unanimously for an anti-Israel divestment measure recently, the vote was not just a setback to the pro-Israel cause — it appeared to throw into question a broad new approach that some pro-Israel advocates have been promoting to move discourse on Israel, as they put it, “beyond the conflict.”

The strategy, which involves playing up other aspects of Israel’s society and culture, such as its science and high-tech achievements, seemed more subject to doubt when an official advisory committee at Brown University, in Rhode Island, approved a divestment recommendation around the same time. The committee called for dialogue with the school administration about Brown’s possible investment “in firms whose products and services are being used to commit human rights violations in Palestine.”

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