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Howard University's president has rejected a faculty resolution calling on the school to become the first American institution of higher learning to divest from certain companies doing business with Israel.
"Without qualification, Howard University and I oppose any action calling for a divestiture" from Israel, President H. Patrick Swygert stressed in a letter Thursday to the American Jewish Committee.
The AJC had written to him after learning of the resolution to express the organization's distress over the development.
"I hope that my complete and unqualified rejection of this resolution will serve to reaffirm our relationship with the American Jewish Committee and all our friends who are interested in promoting peace and reconciliation," Swygert wrote.
He also said that the resolution had not been approved according to university procedures and therefore did not represent the position of the university or the College of Arts and Sciences from which it emerged.
He also stressed that the board of trustees would have needed to approve any such resolution.
Howard, one of the country's leading historically black colleges, has about 10,000 students and is located within the District of Columbia.
According to Alvin Thornton, Howard's vice provost for academic affairs, the resolution arose during a special faculty meeting convened to address a "totally unrelated" topic. The resolution was not listed on the agenda ahead of time or in any other way presented according to the rules of proper procedure.
He said that only 34 of the 441 members of the Arts and Sciences faculty were present at the March 8 meeting, and of them 26 voted for it. As soon as the college's dean found out about the proceedings - which he had not attended in person - he sent a letter to the entire school saying the resolution was "null and void," Thornton said.
The resolution, as posted on the Internet, calls for Howard University to purge its endowment, retirement and short-term investment funds of investments in "'offending' companies that are offering material support to Israeli Occupation."
The document described such companies as those that "provide material aid to the Israeli army in the form of weapons, equipment, and supporting systems used to perpetrate human rights abuses against Palestinian civilians [and] violate international humanitarian law." The Jerusalem Post was unable to reach any of the faculty members connected to the resolution.
According to Hillel President Wayne Firestone, in the last year or so divest-from-Israel campaigns have lost steam. While in the past faculty and student groups have tried similar "stealth" tactics to get divestment resolutions adopted - none having been as successful as the Howard effort, to his knowledge - Firestone said that trend had virtually ended.
"Overall divestment actions as a national movement are dead. They do pop up from time to time as a grassroots effort," he said, explaining their lack of success as having been a "very hard sell."
"Divest from Israel in favor of what?" he asked. Hamas and Hizbullah? "It's a very negative message," he added. "Universities themselves have no interest in alienating the Jewish community on this issue."
The AJC welcomed Stygert's response, particularly the alacrity with which he addressed the issue.
"Howard University is an important institution and has been a long-standing partner with the Jewish community," said Melanie Maron, executive director of the AJC's Washington chapter. "It's disturbing to us that a small group of academics would jeopardize the university's reputation as a bridge-builder by trying to promulgate something so one-sided that doesn't advance the cause of peace."