UC-Berkeley’s new divestment approach

By Steve Horn
Tuesday, April 20, 2010 12:01 a.m.

Few tactics of political activism stir more controversy on college campuses, with accompanying international reverberations, than student-led calls for their university investment boards to divest from corporations that make the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and siege of the Gaza Strip possible.

Generally, this translates to demands to divest from companies like Caterpillar and like-minded bulldozing manufacturers, who are infamous for profiting off of the demolition of over 24,000 Palestinian homes since 1967, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Leftist political activist hotbed University of California-Berkeley is amid an intense Student Senate battle over their school divesting from two corporations — United Technologies and General Electric, both of which supplied weaponry used by Israel to commit what many have deemed war crimes and crimes against humanity during Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009 in Gaza.

When divestment is called for, it is often shunned immediately, yet this time around in Berkeley, in the aftermath of the brutal Operation Cast Lead, the political tide has shifted. The debate, at least among liberals, has moved from “If you’re for divestment, you’re anti-Israel or anti-Semitic” to “There may be other, more effective ways as a liberal peace activist to oppose Israel’s human rights violations than divestment.” This is a huge — let me repeat, huge — step in the right direction.

Many on the right, like they do for any criticism of Israel, call divestment “anti-Semitic,” as it singles out only Israel, a Jewish state, for human rights violations, and leaves out many other abhorrent human rights violating countries all around the world. Ironically, these are often the same people who tout that Israel isn’t solely a Jewish state, but a democracy that grants equal rights to all, including to its minority indigenous Arab population. How the call for divestment can simultaneously be coined anti-Semitic despite these claims is anyone’s guess, but no one ever said political rhetoric had to be coherent or logical.

Others, liberals included, criticize divestment because it makes Jews feel uncomfortable, particularly on college campuses. These people are missing the point, though. Calls for divestment should make Jews feel uncomfortable, for it challenges many notions they have about Israel as a human rights loving democracy and “Light Upon the Nations.” It’s never comforting to learn things contrary to what you’ve been taught all your life — as a fellow Jew, it hasn’t been for me.

But it’s crucial to compare the merits of the discomforts on both sides of the coin.

On the other side of the coin, you have the discomfort of knowing your home has been turned into rubble, either by a bomb or a bulldozer, or even worse, the discomfort of knowing that your brothers and sisters have been wounded or killed while in their home. The discomfort Jews feel as it relates to calls for divestment pales in comparison.

Divestment isn’t anti-Semitic because it has absolutely nothing to do with Judaism and everything to do with calling on Israel as a state to respect international law and human rights. The occupation does exist because both UN Resolution 242 and the Fourth Geneva Convention, among scores of other legal dictates, say that the occupation is illegal. And it makes sense to single out Israel, if for no other reason than our own government does, in the tune of over $3 billion per year in tax-payer funded military aid, which is more aid than we give any other country in the world — other than Iraq and Afghanistan, including more than we give to the entire continent of Africa.

In reality, divestment is one of the few ways student human rights supporters can make a difference in the Israel-Palestine conflict on a micro-level. The more specific and targeted the call for divestment, the better. Calling on “divestment from Israel” as a whole is far too broad and indiscriminate. The UC-Berkeley model is ideal in that its call for divestment hones in narrowly on only two corporations.

The Berkeley Student Senate bill calling for the divestment from these two corporations has garnered wide-ranging support, including from 40 student organizations and numerous Jewish groups and individuals on an international-level, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Rabbi Brant Rosen, Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, eight Israeli peace groups and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu’s sister-in-law, among numerous others.

It’s intellectually dishonest to say that if one is for selective divestment, one is against Israel or a rabid anti-Semite. Divestment is purely a human rights issue. In reality, divestment, whether it fails or prospers, is meaningless if the United States, Israel’s number one enabler, doesn’t alter its relationship with Israel. Slowly but surely, at least rhetorically, that relationship is changing thanks to the Obama Administration and it’s up to college political activists to keep pressuring them, through calls of divestment like Berkeley’s that, indeed, the U.S.’s overt favoritism of Israel is unfair and unjust.

Financial support of repetitive human rights violations will no longer be tolerated. Not in our name.

Steve Horn (sahorn[at]wisc.edu) is a junior majoring in political science and legal studies.

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