Simon Liebling ’12: The right side of history

By Simon Liebling

Opinions Columnist

Published: Friday, April 16, 2010

I worry that often lost in the familiar heroic histories of grassroots political movements is the reality that today’s moral consensus on the justice of their causes belies just how unthinkably controversial these movements were back when they were actually being waged. The unanimous agreement that allows us to exalt these movements in retrospect — I’m thinking, for example, of the effort to end South African apartheid — makes it seem impossible that these issues were ever contentious. Sure, there was always an external target that needed to be compelled to change, but beyond that, the moral certainty of our present narratives can make it seem like everyone else was always united in agreement.

Of course, the consensus is always new, and whatever the issue, there has never been any shortage of people at the time willing to defend the most backwards, antiquated and overtly racist or sexist views. Even in the United States, the campaign for divestment from South African apartheid was a battle for minds. It met active opposition domestically, far outside of the white South African ruling class. Countless people — Americans — defending what was a fairly mainstream political position wound up unambiguously on the wrong side of history. Brown itself resisted the divestment call for a time in the late 1980s.

But we forget these things as the terms of acceptable political debate shift over the years.
The danger of the illusion of moral consensus is that we start vainly searching for it in present political movements as well. Rather than understanding that today’s controversies could well be tomorrow’s moral certainties, we take contentiousness to mean that popular causes now are simply not as compelling as the indisputable causes of decades past and thus not worth supporting. But views will change, and one student’s perfectly normal opinions today might end up completely repulsive in the eyes of their grandchildren.

As we think about ongoing grassroots movements, then, we must remember that the student activists who supported movements like South African divestment were not simply volunteers doing the legwork for a foregone conclusion — they were courageous supporters of an unpopular position. Thus, for all of the controversy that today surrounds calls to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, this divestment movement could, in retrospect, become the moral imperative of our time.

The moral equivalence is well established by those who were heavily involved in the South African anti-apartheid movement. Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “Yesterday’s South African township dwellers can tell you about today’s life in the Occupied Territories.” Elsewhere, he has written that the situation in the Occupied Territories “reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.” Nelson Mandela has made similar comparisons. So did pro-apartheid officials in the old South African government, though they had slightly different intentions.

Divesting from companies profiting from the occupation, then, is as urgent now as it was to divest from companies profiting from South African apartheid in the 1980s. And as Tutu would remind us, we should not for a moment be put off by the controversy surrounding the issue.

Divestment is so imperative because it is a rare way of compelling governments to reform their ways when they otherwise operate with impunity, accountable to no one — as was the case with apartheid South Africa. The simple force of law has proved inadequate in the case of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Israel’s government has disregarded binding legal decisions from both the International Court of Justice and its own Supreme Court that declare the Separation Wall and other aspects of the occupation illegal — the Israeli Supreme Court has no recourse but to hold its own government in contempt time after time.

The Israeli government exhibits such wanton disregard for the rule of domestic and international law because there is no mechanism to force it to obey; it can count on the support of the United States government and the private companies that facilitate the occupation. Divestment, though, grants the international community the enforcement power it sorely needs; it is a way to compel Israel to respect both the law and basic human rights in the Occupied Territories.

Like the movement to divest from South Africa, the movement to divest from companies profiting from occupation draws broad and diverse international support. Brown Students for Justice in Palestine, the organization leading the campaign here, counts among its members Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Jews (like me). But perhaps most important are the members who are neither, who are driven to the issue not by the self-interest of identity, but by sheer force of moral conviction. They see unconscionable events in the Occupied Territories — events supported by their own University’s investments — and in divestment they see a way to do something about it. And like their predecessors who fought against apartheid in South Africa, history will bear them out.

Simon Liebling ’12 is from New Jersey. He can be reached at
simon.liebling -at – gmail.com.

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