The Campaign to Divest from Israel

What do you get if you take the Palestinian uprising, add the socially responsible investment principles of globalization’s critics, and mix in the memory of the last major successful social struggle – the movement to end Apartheid in Israel?

The end result is the most dynamic organizational framework activists working for Palestinian rights have seen in this country.

The new divestment campaign began nearly two years ago in Berkeley. Its goal is to end universities’ financial links to Israeli Apartheid. This is much more tangible than prior efforts, which merely sought to educate the public. Activists could not get past the frustrating apathy of the majority. It was difficult to tell whether opinion was changing or not without advanced polling techniques. Divestment lays out a clear goal.

Divestment’s underlying logic is compelling as it is simple. South Africa’s Apartheid government operated a partite system of administration: one component of the government privileged whites exclusively and fundamentally because they were white, while the other subordinated blacks. This was on the basis of race. In the same way, Israel clearly privileges humans of Jewish ancestry over those of Palestinian descent.

The movement’s logic is bolstered by the historical and experiential proximity between the black South Africans and the Palestinians. In 1999, CNN reported that Nelson Mandela told the Palestinian assembly, “the histories of our two peoples correspond in such painful and poignant ways that I intensely feel myself at home amongst my compatriots.”

South African activists are leading what one group calls the “International Anti-Apartheid Movement Against Israel.” The Palestine Solidarity Committee launched the “new Anti-Apartheid Movement” at the World Conference Against Racism on August 31, 2001, in Durban, South Africa. Their mission states that their “own victorious struggle against apartheid, provide(s) them a unique solidarity with the Palestinian people.” One of their spokespeople, Na’eem Jeenah, is currently touring the country.

Now over 50 petitions are calling for divestment at universities all over the country, according to this week’s Time magazine (“A Campus War over Israel ” 10/7/02). At Harvard and ., a petition garnered over 500 signatures. Around 200 University of California faculty have signed on to a similar one targeting the more than $6 billion the UC invests in companies doing business with Israel. The first national conference devoted to divestment was at Berkeley this past February. It attracted over 450 activists.

One way to measure the potential success of the campaign is to look at the response of Pro-Israeli advocates and their stooges.

This past summer while most students traveled, worked, or studied, Israel’s lobby and friends worked behind the scenes to counter divestment activities. When UCLA’s student newspaper editorial board called for divestment in July, US Congressman Henry Waxman objected in a letter to the editor published in the following edition.

A month later, 71 State of California Legislators introduced a bill against divestment into the California legislature. It called on the University of California to “reject calls to divest its pension funds that are invested in companies with ties to Israel.”

California Governor Gray Davis did not miss his chance to cash in. He claimed that the Students for Justice in Palestine’s takeover of a campus building was an anti-Semitic hate crime. A month later he rejected divestment explicitly, stating, “as long as I am governor of this state, we will continue to stand side by side with our friends in Israel, both in business and friendship.” Especially in business. Israel is California’s 22nd largest trading partner. Israelis invest over $162 million in California and Israeli companies have over 200 offices there, mostly in Silicon Valley

Last June, the Anti-Defamation League put out a press release condemning divestment. Jonathon Bernstein, the ADL’s Northern California director claimed it rested on “the propagation of a false and odious comparison to Apartheid-era South Africa.” This re-affirmed my suspicion that they are not really against all defamation. The press release as well as the ADL’s website fail to demonstrate how the analogy is “false and odious.” We are just supposed to take their word for it, despite their history of spying on anti-Apartheid activists (see Counterpunch’s “The ADL Snoops”).

Recently, Harvard University’s Larry Summers claimed that advocates of divestment are “anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.” This hypocrite chased Cornel West away from Harvard because he was mixing politics and work Here he is taking a political position in his capacity as an administrator. As a side-note, he must have sharpened his talent for hypocrisy as a member Clinton’s cabinet and as the Chief Economist for the World Bank before that – two positions you get by moving in motion with the dominant political currents.

Currently, pro-Israeli activists are scurrying to delay, counter, and infiltrate the upcoming divestment conference at the University of Michigan, to be held October 12th-14th.

The Jerusalem Post depicted it as a Zionism as Racism conference in an September 30th article. Pro-Israeli activists at U-M took a note from Campus-Watch and submitted a dossier in an effort to ban the conference. It alleged that the conference was anti-Semitic. One of its pieces of evidence was that in a picture on the sponsoring organization’s website, an Israeli soldier has his arm raised in the “heil Hilter” position. It charged that SAFE used this to imply a comparison between Nazism and Zionism. This absurd claim characterized the tone of and shaky evidence in the rest of the dossier. The rest of it used cut-and-pasted attacks on some of the speakers.

Last week, an e-mail spoof was sent claiming to be from an organizer of the conference, Fadi Kiblawi. The e-mail’s from-address was his, but he did not write it. It went to every faculty member, and claimed to be a pitch for the conference. Of course, it featured anti-Jewish slurs in order to make the conference appear anti-Jewish. The organizer whose e-mail was spoofed realized this happened when he started receiving nasty responses.

The University’s information and technological services were able to demonstrate that it was sent from a different account.

Kiblawi wrote a letter requesting that the President of the university clear his name since she has access to the entire university community. Instead she wrote a wishy-washy diatribe against divestment and the conference, in which she asserted, “I do not support this divestment.” She added, “we do not believe political interests should govern our investment decisions.”

She counter-productively addressed the spoof e-mail towards the end, of the letter:

“We experienced a disturbing incident when, in violation of University e-mail policy, a message containing inflammatory language was distributed to many U-M faculty membersThe authorship and other related circumstances are under investigation we also have a responsibility to vehemently dispute speech that is incompatible with our principles and beliefs. The e-mail contained language that was deeply offensive and hurtful to me and to many others in our community, and I condemn it … I ask for your collective support in maintaining civil and respectful campus dialogue on important issues.”

This was a favor to the hackers. Instead of condemning those who spoofed the activist’s e-mail, she used the occasion to state her political position and let remain the mistaken belief that he wrote it. The campus newspaper, the Michigan Daily, corrected the record several days later with an article (“SAFE spokesperson speaks out on effect of Coleman e-mail” 10/1/02). U-M student Idris Elbakri was quoted as saying, “it was a mistake to link the hacker’s e-mail to our movement. She did not in any way try to explain to the community that the e-mail was the act of hackers.”

Less positive observers would attribute the President’s letter to malfeasance. I am not sure whether the President’s letter was the result of an agenda or just incompetence. It is often easy to confuse the two.

Israel’s supporters are without a doubt working behind the scenes to quell talk of divestment. A Public records request by lawyers representing “the Wheeler 79,” the students and community members, who were arrested last April for a sit-in at Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall, revealed some interesting documents. Nearly 16 letters were from donors or potential donors withholding contributions to the University.

Anyone challenging billions of dollars a year, be it aid or investment, will be against some powerful forces. For example, the biggest exporter in Israel is Intel, which the University of California has $190 million invested in. One can imagine the pressure that will bear on activists who want to disrupt this precious relationship.

Despite these odds, the plight of the Palestinians has become too obvious and even more intolerable for western activists. The Palestinians are relegated to negotiating for the West Bank and Gaza, or 22% of their historic homeland. American Presidents wear the hat of the honest broker, while American policies and positions categorically advantage the more powerful party. Israel’s military occupation rules too many lives unfairly and ruthlessly. The physical, mental, emotional, and psychological suffocation the Palestinians experience has grown with Israel’s military budget. The billions of dollars this country feeds into that deplorable system through trade violates the basic ideas of socially responsible investment. That over half of US Aid goes to Israel while people throughout the world perish from starvation is cause enough for this movement. Its growth is inevitable.

As the divestment campaign spreads, there will be more e-mail spoofs, more charges of anti-Semitism against Israel’s critics, more blunders and trickery by university Presidents and Regents, and more financial complicity in the murderous policies that treat the Palestinians as sub-human problems worthy of no homeland. University decision-makers can save all the work, time, and energy by divesting now. Of course, that will not happen so long as powerful political forces oppose it.

University Administrators will find themselves being between a rock and a hard place. Surely, these hapless administrators will formulaically bungle their way forward, on the wrong side of history as they did with South Africa. In fact, we are beginning to hear recycled jingles about separating politics and investment, and the harmful effects it would have on the portfolio, and so on – just as they as the excuses they used to oppose divestment from South Africa. Is it their fate to always be a stumbling block to progress? In the end, that is irrelevant. It is in our hands now.

Relevant websites:

Michigan Divestment Conference:

SAFE, University of Michigan:

U-M President’s Statement on the Divestment Conference:

Harvard and M.I.T. divestment petition:

University of California’s faculty petition:

Palestine Solidarity Committee of South Africa:

WILL YOUMANS is a 3rd year law student at University of California, Berkeley. You can reach him at