Bulldozing Debate about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Princeton radicals promote a toxic referendum to divest from Caterpillar

Last week, as Palestinian extremists murdered three more innocent Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv in an escalating campaign of terror, activist students at two American universities voted on repulsive resolutions to urge their respective universities to divest from companies doing business with Israel.

On April 5th, the undergraduate student government at Ohio State University passed an “emergency resolution” urging the University to divest from Hewlett Packard and Caterpillar, Inc. The resolution claimed that “by investing in such companies, The Ohio State University implicitly condones and profits from the decisions and actions of these companies, and, as such, becomes guilty by association [of the consequences]…including, but certainly not limited to, the killing of innocent civilians.”

At Princeton University, the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) sponsored a similar motion titled “Referendum Resolution 2-2022.” While their motion did not include Hewlett Packard as a target of divestment, it similarly called on Princeton to “immediately halt usage of all Caterpillar machinery in all ongoing campus construction projects given the violent role that Caterpillar machinery has played in the mass demolition of Palestinian homes, the murder of Palestinians and other innocent people, and the promotion of the prison-industrial complex (among other atrocities).”

The Princeton Committee on Palestine is the University’s own version of the toxic Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the rabidly anti-Israel organization responsible for most of the campus activism against the Jewish state. It is thus no surprise that PCP’s referendum is peppered with the counter-factual, demonizing language of social justice, oppression, victimization, and Jew-hatred.

“Caterpillar is one of the largest construction manufacturing companies in the world,” the referendum stated, “and its machinery is routinely used for violent, inhumane, and despicable purposes.” These activists have specifically targeted Caterpillar because the company “is listed as one of the only targeted construction companies in the national Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement,” a toxic and ongoing campaign against Israel that student groups such as PCP promote as part of their vilification and demonization of Israel.

The referendum declared “that the undergraduates call on the Princeton University administration to immediately and permanently halt usage of Caterpillar manufacturing equipment in every ongoing University construction project,” but it is unclear how prohibiting Caterpillar machinery from moving dirt on the bucolic Princeton campus will improve the daily lives of Palestinians and help them in their purported quest for self-determination and statehood.

It is obvious that these virtue-signaling students can easily live in a world without heavy machinery; they are less likely, for instance, to call for a ban on the Israeli-developed technology used in their cell phones and computers. That type of activism requires genuine commitment to the cause and a willingness to embrace the sort of personal suffering that students and faculty in the safe and comfortable confines of a university lounge would rather avoid.

More importantly, in almost every instance when students have asked university leadership to divest from companies doing business with Israel, or to boycott Israeli products, or even to institute an academic boycott against Israeli scholars, administrators have politely, but firmly, refused to participate.

[Related: “Suppressing Pro-Israel Views at the University of Chicago”]

So, if Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber decides not to ban Caterpillar equipment from being used for ongoing work on his campus, will the anti-Israel group’s work to push for divestment have been futile? Not exactly—and that is precisely the point. In the end, anti-Israel activists do not really care if a call to boycott or divest is successful, or if Israeli scholars are purged from academia, or if Caterpillar tractors are banned from the Princeton campus. In each of these tactical assaults in the cognitive war against Israel, the activist students only care about the opportunity to publicly catalog the long list of alleged offenses committed by the Jewish state.

At Princeton, even woke Jewish students joined the cause by writing an opinion piece for The Daily Princetonian in which they used the “as Jews” approach to supporting Palestinian solidarity, thus joining the anti-Israel chorus that drives and sponsors the BDS campaign. Referring to themselves as the Alliance of Jewish Progressives, the authors of the noxious piece disingenuously used their Jewishness as a cover against some of the allegations from critics of the referendum. Some critics had noted that, as has been documented by the AMCHA Initiative and others who track anti-Semitism on campuses, BDS activity on a campus—especially when orchestrated by SJP or other anti-Israel groups—frequently creates a hostile climate for Jewish students and often manifests itself as raw anti-Semitism. In fact, as one AMCHA report noted, “the consideration of anti-Israel divestment resolutions in student government or by the student body was strongly linked to a surge in antisemitic activity.”

But these virtue-signaling Jewish students would have none of that. The students knew that critics of the referendum understood that such campaigns are based on and inspire anti-Semitism because they target only Israel and hold Israel to a standard not demanded of other countries who behave even more poorly. Nonetheless, the students defensively proclaimed that they “reject the idea that the PCP referendum is motivated by antisemitism or is itself antisemitic. Criticisms of the State of Israel, including anti-Zionism and the BDS movement, are not inherently antisemitic. Nor is solidarity with the Palestinian people.” But when Israel-haters contend, as these students did, that companies like Caterpillar “are complicit in racist, settler-colonial violence,” they expose their naïve and biased view that Israel is somehow illegitimate, that it is nothing more than a colonial outpost of some European country that has been settled and occupied by racist oppressors who brutally suppress Palestinian self-determination.

More serious is the fact that these self-identified Jewish progressives are more concerned about the Palestinian cause than they are about protecting their fellow Jewish students from harassment and invective for their support of Zionism and Israel. “We do not believe that advocating for Palestinian liberation is a threat to Jewish safety,” they wrote, suggesting, contrary to evidence, that campaigns in support of the Palestinian cause do not increase the likelihood of anti-Semitic behavior or expression, “nor do we believe that Jewish safety is dependent upon Palestinian dispossession.”

Of course, anti-Israel activism on elite campuses such as Princeton is not actually about helping the Palestinians avoid “dispossession,” whatever that means. It is not designed to help the Palestinians moderate their violence toward Israeli Jewish civilians; to end incitement; to encourage the Palestinians to stop teaching their children to loathe Jews from the time they are in kindergarten; to push them to accept the frequent offers of statehood that they have repeatedly rejected; or to urge the Palestinian leadership to abandon their maximalist demands and give up the fantasy that the established and viable state of Israel will somehow be extirpated and that Palestine will be liberated. No, being pro-Palestinian on campus, by definition, only means being anti-Israel, relentlessly campaigning against the Jewish state and proclaiming its many alleged predations. The BDS movement is the core tactic by which that activism manifests itself.

[Related: “The Middle East Studies Association Betrays Academia”]

Referendums such as the Princeton BDS motion are yet another cognitive assault against Israel. Activists do not really care one way or another whether a university divests from a company doing business with Israel or whether an Israeli academic is barred from teaching in the United States. In their fantasy world where social justice is realized, no Caterpillar bulldozers will exist, Palestine will be liberated, and Israel will disappear. Absent that, their loathing of Israel and Zionism is so fundamental to their existence that it is emotionally satisfying for them to simply prolong their campaign of slanders, libels, and lies about Israel and its supporters, regardless of how this activism affects Jewish students who may not even care about Israel.

“We reject the idea that Jewish safety must come at the cost of Palestinian freedom,” the Jewish progressives cavalierly announced—but that view assumes that Palestinian freedom can only be obtained by maligning and attacking Jews for their support of Israel, that Palestinian self-determination requires the elimination of Jewish self-determination.

Roughly a quarter of Caterpillar’s $5 billion annual revenue is earned in Asia, with China making up the largest portion of that market segment. Had the sponsors of the Princeton referendum included as a justification China’s use of Caterpillar machinery in its oppression of Uyghur Muslims, who are imprisoned, subjected to forced labor, and oppressed in concentration camps, or the company’s sales to other despotic regimes and nations, then it might indicate that the sponsors proposed the referendum out of goodwill and actual concern for human rights. But the fact that the sponsors cited the anti-Semitic BDS campaign as one of the justifications for the referendum reveals that it actually has little to do with Caterpillar and everything to do with a targeted, poisonous animus toward the Jewish state.

Two Princeton students, both members of the pro-Israel group Tigers for Israel, wrote an insightful opinion piece for The Daily Princetonian that responded to the referendum by calling on their fellow students to find alternate ways to debate the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. “Instead of supporting a resolution that is rooted within a bigoted global movement,” they wrote, “we ought to cultivate a Princeton campus where all students can safely cherish their identities and express their sentiments; where we collectively engage in a discourse free of hostility and intimidation; and where we sustain a positive environment for ourselves and future generations of Princeton students.”

Progressives profess to be tolerant, wise, and morally generous. However, in their activism on behalf of the long-beleaguered Palestinians, they have revealed that, while they purport to seek justice in Palestine, they in fact only seek justice for the Palestinian. Most progressives have no concern whatsoever for Jews, whether on the Princeton campus or in Israel. If Jews must suffer and be threatened for the sake of Palestinian self-determination, that is a price progressives and Jew-hating activists are quite willing to let them pay.


Image: Jason Jarrach, Public Domain

Richard L. Cravatts

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of "Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews."

3 thoughts on “Bulldozing Debate about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

  1. This needs to be seen as what it is: an attack on the tradition of Western Liberalism which a university is supposed to stand for.

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