The anti-Israel demonstrations at Columbia University, among other colleges and universities, may be, for many involved, simply about venting anger or rage. But at Columbia, they do make a specific demand: that the university divest its endowment from firms involved in the Israeli economy. A December 1 document signed by 89 student groups—ranging from the Young Democratic Socialists of America to the Sexual and Reproductive Health Action Group at the Mailman School of Public Health—made divestment the explicit focus:

Columbia’s current investment portfolio enables and lends legitimacy to Israel’s violations of international law. Columbia is both morally obligated and compelled by the overwhelming consensus of the University community to divest from companies that publicly or privately fund or invest in the perpetuation of Israeli apartheid and war crimes.

The petition does not make clear exactly in what firms Columbia has invested, though they include Airbnb, which, it says, has listed residences on the West Bank. It singles out Caterpillar for selling equipment to Israel said to be used to demolish Palestinian homes; disable water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure; destroy or uproot olive trees; and construct infrastructure between the “illegal” settlements.

These are not the first university protesters to demand divestment in the context of a social or political situation that they found intolerable. Divestment was a prominent theme on college campuses in the 1980s, in connection with the apartheid South Africa regime, for example. Apart from the specific context, however, it’s worth considering more closely the whole question of divestment—something not many protesters do. In this regard, we might learn from the example of late Boston University president John Silber, a Kant scholar, who, though impugned for allegedly resisting free speech, engaged intellectually on the issue.

In 1986, students at Boston University, much like those at present-day Columbia, set up a shantytown on the school’s campus—in this case, to illustrate the housing conditions in South Africa’s black townships. The shantytowns were part of a campaign, eventually including hunger strikes, to force the school to divest holdings in South Africa-related firms.

Silber had a specific faculty figure to contend with: prominent political science professor Howard Zinn, author of the influential People’s History of the United States, widely read but lightly regarded by serious historians. To Zinn, the replica shantytowns were the essence of education:

The university is trying to politicize what the students are doing here. But these shanties that the university considers eyesores are not about politics, but about education. If people can literally see the living conditions of black people in South Africa, they will know how wrong apartheid is and that something must be done.

At the time, BU was sponsoring a program to provide scholarships to black South African students. Silber saw calls for divestiture as a form of virtue-signaling. In a private meeting with protesters who demanded that BU divest from General Motors and IBM, he asked, “Why should we do that? Is it immoral to own that stock?” When the students responded that it was, he said, “So then, we’re supposed to sell it to somebody? We can’t divest unless we sell it to somebody. . . . If we sell it to somebody, we have just gotten rid of our guilt in order to impose guilt on somebody else.”

Columbia officials might give a similar answer today—if they would take the matter seriously enough to use it as an occasion for just that sort of edifying response. They might note, as well, that with ownership comes influence, which divestiture forfeits.

Silber did not limit his response to this reply. He ordered university police to clear the shantytowns and arrest the students. Some were suspended or expelled.

He later reflected on the incident in a Wall Street Journal interview:

Then they put up the shacks. I told the police, “Go ask them three questions: Do you have a title to the property? (They built them on our property, not theirs.) Do you have a building permit? We have to have building permits. Have you got a clearance with the historical commission, because this is a historical district? If the answer is no to those three questions, then you tell them, ‘We’ll give you about 15 minutes to remove your shanty. And if you don’t, you’ll be arrested.’ ” I said, “Now, none of them are going to remove their shanty, so you’re going to have to arrest them. . . .” Because one point I want to get across to these students is, I do not take them seriously. This is not some very deeply felt, high moral cause on their part; this is showboating of a very insincere kind by most of these students, and I want them to understand that I see through their pretensions.

Such was a university president willing both to ensure campus safety and to engage, unapologetically, as a public intellectual. Would that we saw his like today at Columbia or elsewhere.

Photos: Ira Wyman/Sygma via Getty Images (left) / Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images (right)


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