Student urges Stanford divestment from Israel

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Student Omar Shakir wants Stanford University to divest from a country that he says engages in an apartheid-style system of oppression and human rights abuses against a beleaguered minority.

Bosnia? Sudan? Not quite. Mr. Shakir is referring to Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, and his campaign has become this year’s hot political topic on the Stanford campus.

“We don’t want our university to profit from abuses of human rights and violations of international law,” said Mr. Shakir, a senior international-relations major who heads Students Confronting Apartheid in Israel.

His critics, who are legion, say there’s no comparison between South African apartheid, which codified a separate legal system for blacks and whites, and Israel, which has placed some restrictions on Palestinians in self-defense after years of suicide bombings.

Mr. Shakir disagrees. “The comparison has been made by prominent people like [South African] Bishop Desmond Tutu between Israel’s treatment of the occupied territories and South African apartheid,” he said. “It’s not this fringe idea.”

Indeed, Stanford isn’t the first to wrestle with the divest-from-Israel concept. Since 2002, similar campaigns have been started at Harvard, Duke and Yale universities, and at least one city, Somerville, Mass., has considered the idea, according to Divestment Watch, which tracks the movement.

So far one major U.S. organization, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has agreed to divest from Israel. In the United Kingdom, the Academic Union of Teachers, an educators union, has also divested.

At Stanford, the student senate is considering a bill that would urge the university to divest its holdings not from Israel, but from companies whose products support the military or the building of the “security barrier” separating the occupied territories from Palestinian settlements in the West Bank.

Those companies would include Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Caterpillar and even McDonald’s, which prohibits its employees from speaking Arabic, Mr. Shakir said.

The student senate is expected to consider the measure after next week’s spring break. Some senators have suggested holding a campuswide town hall meeting next month to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mishan Araujo, a junior public-policy major who serves as president of the Stanford-Israel Alliance, opposes the idea, saying it would validate the divest-from-Israel arguments.

“I wouldn’t support a discussion about whether Israel has a right to exist, and I won’t support a discussion about whether Israel is an apartheid state,” Miss Araujo said.

She noted that a petition circulated in support of Israel gathered more than 1,300 signatures, including 91 faculty members. A petition backing divestment from Israel gained about 520 signatures, including a half-dozen faculty.

Mr. Shakir conceded that the divestment movement isn’t likely to succeed this year, but he’s optimistic about its future. He noted that student leaders are planning to expand beyond the student body by promoting the proposal among administrators, board members and even alumni.

“A lot of people are quick to write this off. We know it’s not going to happen this year, and it’s not going to happen next year,” he said. “But we feel like we’re building consensus. This is the direction the debate is going.”

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