Divestment politics, Stanford-style: Will a strong identification with a group affect one's fair-mindedness?

Religious identity, threats of anti-Semitism, conflict of interest muddy the waters of campus divestment debate

Published April 22, 2015 3:30PM (EDT)

Stanford University   (Wikimedia/Travis Wise)
Stanford University (Wikimedia/Travis Wise)

An uproar has recently erupted around allegations that, after a Stanford student asked for the endorsement of the Students of Color Coalition for her run for student senate, the group pressed her about her Jewish identity and whether she would support divestment from firms doing business with Israel.  It all began with the student, Molly Horwitz, expressing her shock that the interview before the SOCC took a certain turn:

Part way through the lead interviewer asked me, “Given your strong Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment?” I couldn’t quite process that I had actually been asked this question. Did me being Jewish mean I wasn’t qualified to serve on Senate? Did SOCC doubt my commitment to serving students of color on the basis that I am Jewish? Somewhat stunned, I asked for clarification. The SOCC interviewer responded that she had noticed I talked about my Jewish identity in the application and was wondering how this would affect my decision on divestment.

The conservative news source the Stanford Review outlined the problem this way:

While SOCC has every right to select candidates it believes will advocate for its agenda, it does not have license to judge candidates purely on the basis of their religious beliefs. Perhaps more importantly, the question reveals an assumption that a student’s Jewish identity inherently compromises his or her ability to serve effectively on the senate.  Religious discrimination, like discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexuality, is banned by Stanford’s Acts of Intolerance Protocol. These allegations are also concerning because SOCC is a coalition designed to advocate for groups that have historically faced discrimination.

The Israeli news venue Ha’aretz picked up the story, decrying the supposed targeting of Horwitz. It repeated Horwitz’s claim: “During the interview with the Students of Color Coalition, a member asked Horwitz, 'Given your strong Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment?'”  but conspicuously absent was any account from the student group itself.  Ha’aretz simply nodded toward the fact that “In a meeting with a university official, coalition members gave a different account of the line of questioning, according to the [Stanford] Review.”  That’s it—no follow-up, no fact-checking.  An international journal was quite willing to accept out of hand a student newspaper’s hearsay account of a volatile issue without presenting the other side, and the story grew and grew.

It was then picked up by the New York Times, which did in fact present the other side:

Tianay Pulphus, the president of the campus chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., said that Ms. Horwitz’s charge was “baseless.”

“At no point was she asked whether her Jewish identity impacted her view on divestment,” said Ms. Pulphus, a senior who was one of the students who conducted the interview. “We ask all candidates how they would navigate issues that have come up in the previous year. We in no way singled out a candidate based on their ethnic or religious identity.”

Ms. Horwitz, like others interviewed, was asked about a range of issues including sexual assault and mental health services, Ms. Pulphus said, and her view on divestment was not the basis of the coalition’s decision.

A fuller response was made by the group in the student newspaper the Stanford Daily, which reads in part:

Every candidate that applies for our endorsement undergoes a rigorous vetting process, beginning with a written application. This year, we offered verbal interviews to all applicants, allowing leadership of our six communities to engage with every potential endorsee. We incorporated a carefully-worded, standard question on divestment during the interview process. While all six member groups of SOCC endorsed the Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine initiative, we recognized that a wide spectrum of views exist concerning the issue. Therefore, we decided to ask candidates: If they had been elected Senators this year, how would they have handled the issue of divestment?  By broadly asking how the candidate would “handle” the issue or ‘navigate’ the decision-making process, we hoped to hear answers fulfilling two major criteria, enumerated prior to all interviews: (1) a proposed action plan involving reaching out to all communities affected; and (2) a willingness to assume responsibility to make a decision.

The group flatly asserts: “At no point was the question framed in the context of religious identification.”

At present, university officials are conducting an investigation to ascertain what actually happened. Nonetheless, this incident has garnered international attention not just because of what is reputed to have taken place, but also, and more important, because of the significance this “event” has beyond the campus. It raises the broader question: Can a person who, in filling out an application, declares his or her religious identity proudly, then not be asked what effect that identification might have upon his or her decision-making processes?  It was not so long ago that presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was asked whether, as a devout Catholic, he would obey the pope or the Constitution.  Offensive, perhaps, but entirely out of bounds?

There is a specific dimension to this case that brings it into the headlines: the accusation of anti-Semitism. That accusation has a specific potency these days, as indeed we see the rise of virulent and abhorrent forms of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere.  Are people of the Jewish faith being singled out solely for that identity?  In actual cases of anti-Semitism, of course they are.  But there is a big difference between excluding, harassing, persecuting and physically attacking members of a group because of their identity, and asking how a fervent identification with a group might (or might not) affect a person’s fair-mindedness. But more important, it is not the “point of view of a group” (which is, of course, impossible to ascertain within large groups with a diversity of opinions), but with a point of view that has been promoted by certain members of that group as the orthodox or proper view.  In this case it is the assertion, made by many (but not all) Jewish groups, and by the state of Israel itself, that divestment is bad.  And here it is important for me to emphasize that I do not believe that this sort of vetting took place in the case of Molly Horwitz—I am taking the worst-case scenario painted by others to draw out the broadest and most contentious aspects of this matter. And to lead to a second story coming out of Stanford, that also has to do with divestment.

In 2014 a group of Stanford students petitioned the university’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APIRL) to recommend to the trustees that Stanford divest from firms involved in the Israeli occupation.  Just recently the trustees issued this explanation of why, after hearing the recommendations of APIRL, it would not honor the students’ petition:

In coming to this decision, the Board has observed the campus discussion surrounding the issue and received input from the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APIRL). In its deliberations, the Board reflected on the fact that the Stanford community is diverse, with many groups and individuals – faculty, staff, students and alumni – highly engaged on all sides of this issue and other important issues of our time. A diversity of viewpoints and Stanford's commitment to open, thoughtful and civil debate are critical to the educational mission of the university.

The request from the Stanford Students for Justice in Palestine asserted that Stanford should divest its holdings in certain companies that they claim profit from human rights abuses and violations of international law in Israel/Palestine. Neither the APIRL nor the Board sought to determine the veracity of those claims, or to disprove them.

Rather than explore such issues, the Board focused on the questions of divisiveness and negative impact on its mission as contained in the Statement on Investment Responsibility. The Statement provides that if the Trustees conclude that a specific Trustee action "is likely to impair the capacity of the University to carry out its educational mission (for example, by causing significant adverse action on the part of governmental or other external agencies or groups, or by causing deep divisions within the University community), then the Trustees need not take such action." The Board concluded that any action on this issue would clearly have such an impact.

So far, so good. The trustees seem to have taken the high road, and, for the sake of harmony and unity, decided (even without testing the merit of the case), that to divest was to divide.  While this, of course, was a disappointment to supporters of the resolution, it really did not come as much of a surprise; despite the fact that student governments on many university campuses (including the collected student bodies of the entire University of California system) have passed divestment resolutions, regents and trustees have turned a deaf ear to each one.

What is surprising is this news released on April 20, titled “Gross Misconduct in APIRL’s Handling of SJP’s Divestment Request,” pointing out that “Susan Weinstein, Chair of the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APIRL), which heard the request and advised the Stanford Board of Trustees on it, served on the Board of Directors of Stanford Hillel, an organization officially opposed, locally and internationally, to divestment as it relates to Israel/Palestine.”  The statement continues:

SJP submitted our divestment request in April of 2014, and we formally presented to the APIRL in May and October of 2014. Weinstein told us that she resigned from the Hillel Board on January 26, 2015. Weinstein confirmed to us that she guided the APIRL’s handling of the request, and she deliberated and voted on SJP’s request, all while being on the Board of Stanford Hillel. The entire process of the APIRL and the Board of Trustees was thus fatally compromised. Basic standards of fairness in these kinds of administrative proceedings require that the person presiding over the process cannot be an institutional opponent or supporter of a contesting party.

To be clear, we are not opposed to members of the APIRL having previously existing opinions on divestment - we imagine most did. What we cannot accept is having a member of the board of directors of an organization explicitly and actively opposed to our request being the person in charge of hearing it.

An analogy may be useful. Would you trust the fairness of a university hearing about discrimination based on sexual orientation if it were chaired by a member of the Board of the Boy Scouts of America - an organization which officially discriminates against, in their words, “open and avowed homosexuals”? In our case, we are almost certain that the Stanford administration would not have allowed the APIRL to be chaired by a director of a pro-divestment organization, such as the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

Here we find what appears to be a much more clear-cut case than the Horwitz matter.  Why did Weinstein not recuse herself from presiding over this critical investigation? (Although she was contacted early Monday morning for a response, by the time of publication Weinstein had not replied.)

It is essential to juxtapose these two cases, both in and of themselves, but also, again, for what they might teach us about any future such instances.  In her application to be endorsed by SOCC Horwitz declared the importance to her of her ethnic and religious identity. According to the group, they asked her and all others applying for its endorsement how they would pragmatically handle the decision-making process regarding a hot-button issue such as divestment, and without any reference to their religion or ethnicity. While there seems to be a difference of interpretation about what actually was conveyed during the interview, this seems an open and aboveboard process conducted between students. And while some might object, it is really up to the students to decide what it will take to earn their endorsement, and this was neither a deal-breaker nor the sole criteria. Again, it is not at all unusual; in fact it is common for all political candidates to be vetted by potential endorsers and donors on their decision-making processes.

What we find in the APIRL case is something altogether different. The chair was in a position of authority and judgment over the petitioners. The merit of the case lay not with the attitudes or beliefs of either party, but with the facts. Yet the trustees decided not to hear the facts at all—they listened to APIRL, and what they heard was likely in no small measure colored by the chair’s point of view.  And that point of view can reasonably be seen to be affected by her status as a leader in Hillel.  Indeed, the students are right: Would people object if the chair was discovered to be a member of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation?  I would venture they would.  Perhaps it is too much to expect complete impartiality of anyone, but in this case the chances of impartiality seem remote.

Putting the most generous construction on it, perhaps the thought that she would be prejudiced simply never crossed Weinstein’s mind.  And after all, her service on the Hillel board was not a deep, dark secret. And yet even a total novice knows that one must guard against “even the appearance” of bias.

A less generous construction would suggest that the near impunity that advocates of Israeli state policies seem to enjoy with regard to the occupation  (despite their outcries of being targeted) makes them complacent.  After all, until very recently, there was a firm consensus on Israel in the U.S., and even now, massive amounts of financial, diplomatic and political aid lends them strength, as I have reported in Salon previously.  Again, there was very little, if any, chance that the students would prevail.  So why even bother to recuse?

But anyone who takes heart at the defeat of divestment resolutions is deluded in doing so; they just don’t get it. Those arguing for divestment, as well as those arguing for boycotts and sanctions, know full well that reaching these goals is difficult, and will require persistence, stamina and commitment. In the meantime, they have already achieved what they wanted fundamentally—they have put this conversation out in front of the American public.

On campuses everywhere, students no longer wave this issue away.  Apathy is increasingly not an option.  And, most important, students are educating themselves.  Even if dissident voices are censored, punished, marginalized on campus, the truth is still coming out.  These voices find expression everywhere, and they point to a historical record that is impossible to refute convincingly.

Besides the knowledge derived from this self-learning, students are driven by events. When Netanyahu says there will be no two-state solution, when he decries “Israeli Arabs” coming to exercise their democratic rights, when the Israeli High Court upholds an “Anti-Boycott” law in which the “only democracy in the Middle East” openly squelches free speech, there appears a cognitive dissonance between what students are told is true and what they see before them.  Students are creating their own education on a taboo subject, and changing the political landscape of their universities.  And as divestments resolutions are repeatedly being turned back after democratic student votes usher them forward, people everywhere are looking more closely at the ethical commitment of these schools as well as at the broader moral landscape.

What is at stake is what Martin Luther King said long ago.  In his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King wrote: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

No matter what the chair of APIRL may or may not have done, one would hope that Molly Horwitz and others like her would indeed do the right thing, hear each case as dispassionately and fairly as possible, and act for the presence of justice.  For they are the future.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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