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Parallels with South Africa

The Growing Israel Divestment Movement

by WILL YOUMANS


and NADEEM MUADDI

The Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM) recently announced it is holding its fifth annual divestment conference at Georgetown University in Washington DC during the weekend of February 17-19, 2006. A broad based grassroots movement, the PSM advocates the divestiture of financial holdings from companies maintaining business and/or military relationships with the state of Israel.

Estimating that delegates representing over one hundred North American civil, student, professional, and religious organizations will be in attendance, PSM organizers expect this event to be the largest and most successful PSM conference to date.

While previous conferences held at the University of California, Michigan, Ohio State, and Duke focused primarily upon the reasons for which divestment is a moral imperative and a pragmatic path to peace, PSM organizers formatted this year’s conference to center on skills-training and movement-building.

Initiated in 2001 by University of California’s (Berkeley) Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), divestment campaigns not only took campuses across the country by storm, but also sparked a global movement based upon the promotion of economic disengagement from Israel. Such economic sanctions, PSM activists assert, shall remain in place until Palestinian human rights are incorporated in a just solution.

A just solution requires the Israeli government to adhere to relevant international law demanding the decolonization of Palestinian lands, and implementing Palestinian refugees’ Right of Return. In sum, the reasonable interpretation of these laws amounts to the dismantling of Israel’s system of apartheid rule ­ the end goal of divestment activists. So long as national governments fail to implement the necessary steps, divestment activists will press local and regional institutions to lead the way to peace.

PSM’s mission was furthered by several important victories. On April 17, 2003, Michigan’s Wayne State University Student Council voted to divest from all companies operating in Israel. The University of Michigan, Dearborn’s student government also passed a divestment resolution.

In 2004, the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), in its entirety, voted to implement measures of economic engagement ­ applying the principles of morally responsible investing for the purpose of scrutinizing companies that abet and profit from Israel’s illegal occupation. In 2005 the largest union of professors and teaching staff in Wisconsin passed a resolution calling on the University of Wisconsin to divest.

The movement’s most recent positive developments, however, came only weeks ago when the regional council of the Sør-Trøndelag in Norway honored the appeal of 170 Palestinian groups. The board of officials heeded the NGO’s call for worldwide intervention through a strategy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) by passing motions calling for the boycott of Israeli goods. Interestingly, the same Norwegian board was one of the first to implement economic measures against South Africa’s apartheid regime decades earlier.

Commenting on these recent triumphs, Bayann Hamid, PSM Spokesperson and executive board member of Georgetown’s SJP, declared "It’s great to see so many organizations taking a stand for justice. Apartheid was not tolerated in South Africa, and nor will it be accepted in Israel/Palestine."

As organizers of the PSM conference point out, the "apartheid formula" is "control plus territorial confiscation plus separation equals apartheid." Through the use of checkpoints, roadblocks, and city-wide curfews, Israel controls the daily movement and freedom of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, its separation wall puts half of the West Bank on the Israeli side. Meanwhile, illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank face none of the restrictions that Palestinians do ­ this, by definition, is apartheid. The Israeli vision of peace is the same as the Afrikaner’s: separation from and subjugation of the natives.

However, in divestment debates that made the pages of the New York Times, many of the movement’s antagonists claim that there is no comparison between Israel and South Africa’s apartheid regime. According to this camp, Israel is a morally superior democracy fighting against hatred and terrorism. Expounding upon this claim, Morton Klein, National President of the Zionist Organization of America, stated in an August 2004 "action alert" that "[t]he Arabs, not Israel, are promoters of apartheid."

Though American supporters of Israel and Israelis don’t get it, many South Africans see the parallels.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Prize winner and famed anti-apartheid activist, connected the South African and Palestinian experiences: "If I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa."

He is not alone. In 2001, 30,000 to 50,000 South Africans took to the streets of Durban to march in support of the Palestinian people. While many of the Palestine Solidarity Movement’s detractors deny the significance of this relationship, it is, in fact, historically impossible to do so. During the anti-Apartheid movement, the PLO was aligned with Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. Israel, on the other hand, sided with the Apartheid regime.

Utilizing these facts, the PSM modeled its movement on similar efforts by South African solidarity campaigners in the 1970′s and 80′s. They sought to end financial linkages between their universities and the Apartheid state. If equality came to South Africa, then it can to Israel-Palestine.

The February conference will offer attendees practical skills training and drop-in divestment consultation in order to give activists a solid grasp of the divestment strategy.

"What makes this year’s conference so unique is that activists will be given the opportunity to begin working on their divestment campaigns while in attendance," Hamid explained. This will, no doubt, strengthen their movement-building efforts.

The PSM’s conference is open to the public and all students and community activists are encouraged to attend. A minimum donation of $10.00 is required to register.

For more information on the conference: www.palestinesolidaritymovement.org

WILL YOUMANS is a divestment activist. Visit his blog at www.kabobfest.com

Nadeem Muaddi is a spokesperson for the PSM. Email: Nadeem_Muaddi@yahoo.com