A movement has been gaining momentum on college campuses throughout the country to seek divestment -- withdrawal of universities' money -- from companies that invest in Israel or that sell it military supplies.
Drawing upon the successful campaign to help dismantle apartheid in South Africa, the movement seeks to employ divestment to help end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Campaigns are under way at 15 universities, and a recent conference on divestment in Ann Arbor, Mich., drew 500 participants from more than 70 universities.
As an advocate of divestment and active participant in the newly launched campaign at Ohio State University, I want to explain why we have issued this call. In 1948, Israel expelled more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, and has refused ever since to abide by U.N. Resolution 194, which demands the refugees' repatriation. In 1967, Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip (in a war that Israel started, contrary to popular myth), expelling another 250,000 Palestinians in the process. Since 1967, Israel has violated scores more U.N. resolutions, along with the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from deporting the native population and moving its own population onto occupied territory.
There are now almost half a million Israeli citizens living on land taken during the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem. Israel's occupation has been brutal: targeted assassinations, home demolitions, torture, massive confiscation of land and suffocating curfews have been standard policy. Israel's overall aim has been to thwart Palestinian political and economic development, thus undermining any chance for genuine Palestinian sovereignty and national identity.
A number of opponents of divestment have attacked the movement as anti-Semitic. Lawrence summers, president of Harvard University, denounced the divestment effort there as "anti-Semitic, in effect if not intent," while protesters at the Michigan conference brandished signs reading, "Hate conference here." As a Jew, I find this charge offensive and dangerous. Offensive because the vast majority of participants in this national campaign, which includes many Jews, are perfectly clear that abuses by the Israeli government do not license attacks on Jews or Judaism, and dangerous because by lumping all critics of Israeli actions into the category of anti-Semites, the charge is undermined when aimed at those who genuinely deserve it.
Some people argue that it is unfair to target Israel when so many other governments deny their citizens basic human rights, and others are guilty of occupying foreign land as well. In fact, there is no inconsistency here. It is absurd to argue that whenever you direct your energy to fight abuse in one area, you must do so everywhere. Following such a course would be a recipe for total paralysis and passivity.
I support any effort by others to work for human rights in China, or to end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, but that doesn't mean I have to be working on those projects as well. That aside, there are particular reasons to focus on the Israeli occupation. Israel is singular in the degree of economic and political support it receives from the United States. That places a special moral burden on American citizens to do something about Israel's brutal behavior, because without U.S. support, it couldn't be sustained.
Also, divestment is not merely a matter of keeping one's hands clean; it is a strategy to follow when there is reason to think it can accomplish its goal, and there are two crucial features of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at present that make divestment an appropriate strategy.
First, Israel is the vastly superior power in the conflict, so no progress is possible until Israel decides to relinquish control over the occupied territories (which, contrary to popular myth again, Ehud Barak's "generous offer" did not do), and negotiate in good faith toward a truly sovereign Palestinian state and a just solution of the refugee problem.
Second, given the Israeli political dynamic, no genuine peace movement is capable of achieving political power without significant external pressure, just as we saw in South Africa. To put it simply, the Israeli middle class must be persuaded that there is no money in holding on to the territories, and divestment is an important tool in convincing them.
Finally, the situation in Israel-Palestine is horrendous, and deteriorating rapidly. The death toll rises daily on both sides. Every day, the idea of wholesale expulsion of Palestinians, reminiscent of 1948, becomes more popular in Israel. Peace, justice and stability will not come to the rest of the Middle East until the Palestinian situation is resolved; it is a festering wound that infects the entire region.
For all these reasons, divesting from Israel seems prudent, humane and the right thing to do.