(JTA) — When Northwestern University’s student Senate passed a resolution in February 2015 asking the university to divest from six corporations they 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, and became its president that May.
A year and a half later, he feels confident the university won’t heed the resolution’s divestment call, and Krasner has shifted his extracurricular focus on campus — serving 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. “Because it passed, it’s never going to be brought up again.” Anti-Israel activists, he said, have “lost their rallying cry. They’ve lost their thing to mobilize around.”
The vote by Northwestern’s Associated Student Government Senate 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 in the University of California Student Association, representing all U.C. students across the state, and in Stanford University’s Undergraduate Senate.
But nearly two years after the BDS three-peat, 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 three weeks ago.
Perhaps most significant, not one university has actually divested from Israel or companies targeted for doing business in the West Bank. After its College Council passed a divestment resolution in April, the University of Chicago released a statement saying an Israel boycott “would only diminish the University’s distinctive contribution.”
Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut told JTA that the organization has reached out personally to university presidents to lobby them against BDS and has found open ears.
“We have been in touch with university leaders, trustees and administrators to help them oppose, to help them understand why any kind of academic boycott or divestment would be the wrong thing to do,” he said. “They’ve all agreed with that position.”
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. “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, Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul, Jewish philanthropist and Republican megadonor, 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.
But Ben Lorber, campus coordinator for the pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace, said divestment resolutions and protests at events serve the same purpose: sparking conversation about Palestinian rights. He predicted that BDS resolutions would re-emerge next semester with the approach of the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War between Israel and Arab states, as a result of which the West Bank came under Israeli control.
“The larger goal is to educate the community as a whole,” Lorber said. “Divestment is so effective because it gets the whole campus talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and looking into these issues. Students are continuing to exercise their free-speech rights to protest injustice on campus and in the world around them.”
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. “There’s not an actual campaign to push a specific initiative right now” on pressuring the university to divest from Israel.
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 among its 10 voting members.
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 issues of 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 the campus African-American student group, 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.”
This story "As BDS ‘Wave’ Ebbs, Students on Both Sides of Israel Debate Shift Tactics" was written by Ben Sales.