Much of the controversy spawns from a nascent campaign by supporters of the Palestinian cause demanding that universities divest of stock in companies that do business in Israel.
Two students in Ann Arbor, Mich., sued the university this week in an attempt to halt a conference, sponsored by a pro-Palestinian student group, aimed at advancing a national divestment strategy. More than 450 students from at least 72 campuses registered.
Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman has said that she does not support divestment, but that organizers have a right to hold the conference. On Wednesday, general counsel Marvin Krislov said the lawsuit is baseless, adding, "An attempt to impose a gag order violates the most fundamental precepts of the First Amendment."
The divestment campaign, patterned after similar efforts targeting South Africa in the late 1970s, began nearly two years ago, but it has intensified since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as students grow more aware of international issues, says Francis Boyle, an international law professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. It was Boyle who first suggested the divestment campaign.
That has led to counter-petitions--in some cases as strong or stronger than the divestment efforts. As of Oct. 2, for example, 130 faculty at Harvard and MIT had signed a petition favoring divestment "until the rights of the Palestinians are respected." A second petition urging the universities not to divest bears 582 faculty signatures.
On some campuses, protests have grown ugly. At San Francisco State University last spring, for example, Palestinian supporters shouting "Hitler did not finish the job" crashed a rally led by Jewish students.
This fall, activity has widened and grown more organized on both sides:
With the campus dialogue so polarized, many students are "caught in a struggle," says Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a liberal Jewish magazine. To that end, he says, Tikkun is hosting a conference this weekend to develop a national campus network aimed at finding a "middle path" that works toward reconciliation.
Says Lerner, "No deal will work unless there's a change at the heart level, and the heart level means recognizing the humanity of the other."