This recent news item was too hard to believe. Had Harvard, arguably the most prestigious university in the nation, really divested its holdings in Israeli companies?
As it turns out, the news was hard to believe because it wasn’t true. Harvard hadn’t divested from Israel, though it did reorganize two of its funds, which include Israeli companies.
“The University has not divested from Israel,” said an official statement from the university. “Israel was moved from the MSCI, Harvard’s benchmark in emerging markets, to the EAFE index in May due to its successful growth. Harvard’s emerging-markets holdings were rebalanced accordingly.”
Despite the clarification, forces beating the drum for divestment — namely, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Palestine movement — ran with the story. Harvard had divested from Israel. What a coup!
It’s not the first time this has happened. Divestment forces claimed in 2009 that Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., had divested from companies that do business with Israel as the result of an intensive two-year campaign by the Students for Justice in Palestine. At the time, SJP claimed that six of the 200 companies Hampshire was divesting from — all reportedly violated the college’s standards for social responsibility — were profiting from the so-called occupation of the West Bank.
Not so, the college said. According to school officials, three of the six companies failed a screen for socially responsible investing based on their sales of military equipment, employee safety record and other violations, according to a spokesman. Two of the companies named by SJP — Motorola and Terex — passed the screen, the spokesman said. A sixth company, United Technologies, was unlisted.
“Hampshire College did not divest from Israel or take the action it did because of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians or its presence on the West Bank,” outgoing Hampshire College President Ralph Hexter said in an open letter to Alan Dershowitz. “At no time did the college or the board take actions or make statements motivated by anti-Semitism, bigotry and anti-Israelism.”
So this should be good news, right? No colleges are divesting from Israel.
Unfortunately, there’s a new force at work in today’s media (actually, it was always there, it’s just omnipresent now, thanks to the Internet): In addition to accuracy, there is now the perception of accuracy.
Perception is a powerful force. That’s why politicians, judges and lawyers are constantly admonished for avoiding, not only impropriety on their jobs, but the appearance of impropriety. We need to trust the people who make our laws and interpret them.
Likewise, we need to trust the people who report our news, or profess to.
That’s why now, more than ever, the average news junkie needs to look behind the headlines of the email filling their mailboxes. What is truth and what is spin? Who are the news sources? Who owns them? What are their motives?
News of the Harvard and Hampshire divestments weren’t true. Unfortunately, many people now believe they were, and changing their fixed opinions will be next to impossible.
Marshall McLuhan contended that the medium is the message. How right he was.
(Lee Chottiner, executive editor of The Jewish Chronicle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)