Israel and Divestment

by WILL YOUMANS

A little more than a week ago several hundred college students from all over the United States met in Michigan to further the growing campaign to divest American universities of companies with holdings in Israel. The students gathered because they share recognition of the importance of severing the US-Israeli umbilical cord that feeds Israel’s destructive military occupation of the Palestinian people. They argue that Israel’s discriminatory legal and political structure vis-?-vis the non-citizen Palestinians of the Occupied Territories is at the very least a variant of Apartheid–the rights and security of Jews are prioritized while Israel refers to the Palestinians as a collective “problem”–thus, devoid of rights or the need for security.

Reactions to this nascent movement from American opinion leaders have been nothing short of contemptuous. The president of Harvard, and former Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, Larry Summers, decried it as “anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent.” A New York Times columnist, or memoist rather, wrote that divestment’s advocates were “dishonest” and “hypocrites” because they “single out” Israel. This past week, the original singling out that inspired the divestment campaign in the first place shined its ugly head. Ha’aretz reported that Israeli officials are asking for as much as $10 billion in pure aid from the United States. This “proposal” supposedly “stems from the United States’ expected campaign against Iraq coupled with the American desire that Israel not interfere with Washington’s plans or use IDF troops against Iraq.”

That Israel could issue and reasonably expect such an absurd request shows that it already enjoys a special singled out status. Why would they need more money for the less costly course of action? Intervening or using “IDF troops against Iraq” would seem to merit the required aid, but Israel does the opposite and charges the United States. If the aid is granted, it will be time to send in the auditors to review this fishy financial transaction.

What bewilders me is that so many critics attack viciously the critical singling out of Israel by the divestment campaign, but are actively supportive of singling out Israel as a special ally and worthy recipient of disproportionately high arms, aid, and trade. This is a contradiction because clearly one’s biggest ally and paraded model “light among nations” should be held to an extent of scrutiny commensurate with the favoritism bestowed upon it. Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz is one of the most avid purveyors of this contradiction. In a piece he published in the Harvard Crimson (9/23/2002), he charges divestment supporters with singling out Israel, then goes on to start three paragraphs with sentences that start with “Israel is the only” to demonstrate its benevolence.

Clearly, it is not about “singling out,” it is about criticism, and Israel’s supporters have proven again to be intolerant of it. The interesting thing is that the end goal of lifting US Aid to Israel is not really anti-Israel, it is really merely seeking American neutrality. Divestment seeks to transform the United States from being overtly pro-Israeli, to just being impartial. No one is saying re-direct US aid to the PA or invest all that money in Palestine!

A fantastic mystical aspect to this “singling out” criticism of divestment is the principle it establishes: no one should focus activism on one area or issue unless they address every other one of equal or greater detriment. Only big-shot columnists and prestigious university administrators could have such an idiotically unworkable conception of activism.

Thomas Friedman’s suggestion that divestment activists should target Syria first is also laughable. According to him, divestment activists should target a country that American companies do not invest in, which is sort of like boycotting a business that went bankrupt.

His other counter-examples, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, admittedly make more sense. Their human rights records are deplorable and they receive American aid and investment. Israel is still more justified to target since it has a rights-based democratic structure in place for one portion of those living under its jurisdiction already. Divestment activists simply demand that Israel extend it to everyone under its jurisdiction. No such rights-based structure exists in Egypt, which gets its aid for making peace with Israel, or Saudi Arabia, which functions as the institutionalized guardian of western oil corporations.

Democratizing these will be easier once Israel goes from being what Israeli professor Oren Yiftachel calls an “ethnocracy” to a sincere democracy. The Arab regimes will no longer be able to use Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to divert its people from their own repression and keep the perpetual police state the threat of Israel is used to justify. After all, these countries will argue that American calls for democracy are hypocritical so long as our biggest ally gets away with Apartheid.

There is another important consideration. Israel is much more dependent on trade with American corporations than most other countries are. It is also much more reliant on US foreign aid, which Israel receives the largest share of. Therefore, it social responsibility obligation to US taxpayers, investors, and consumers is the highest.

Noble Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu and Ian Urbina explained it perfectly: “Divestment from apartheid South Africa was certainly no less justified because there was repression elsewhere on the African continent.” Should we really lower our standards for Israel because there are other countries with poor records?

There is a purely pragmatic reason why American patriots should support divestment. Uncritical support of Israel damages America’s international stature. Nearly every decent position the United States takes on human rights, refugees, militarism, nuclear proliferation, and minority rights is easily deemed an agenda-driven farce due to its contradictory support for Israel. For example, the international community instantly recognized the emptiness of President George Bush’s citation of UN resolution violations by Iraq as a justification for war. Israel undermines far more.

This is not just about ending Israel’s Apartheidesque oppression of the Palestinians, it is about importing respectability and consistency into American foreign policy. To do that, we must change it where it is needed the most. The United States will never be an honest broker for peace between Israel and the Palestinians so long as its public and private sectors have so much invested in Israel. Israel must be isolated to be vulnerable to international pressure. George W. Bush is not interested in peace beyond its expedience for other policy priorities. American support for Israel shields it from international criticism.

Divestment is not a knee-jerk, anti-Israel reaction as critics maintain. The goal for divestment is an objective, non-partisan American policy to replace its destructive, pro-Israeli bias that ultimately furthers the wasting of lives on both sides. Divestment advocates seek to disconnect Israel from America’s womb. This does what the United States has failed to do: treat Israel as another country in the world’s community of nations. It is time Israel face the responsibilities and expectations codified in international law and necessary for a peaceful resolution to its conflict with the land’s natives.

Divestment is fundamentally a strategy for peace. It is a healthy, morally-sound and practical singling out of Israel.

WILL YOUMANS is a third year law student at UC-Berkeley. You can e-mail him at youmans@boalthall.berkeley.edu

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