Targeting pocketbook might end rights abuses

October 18, 2002|By Sherri Muzher

MASON, Mich. -- A divestiture movement is growing at American universities to apply financial pressure on Israel. Such a push helped end apartheid in South Africa, and some faculty and students hope that it will help end Israel's 35-year occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Divestiture calls for the removal of financial support to countries in a bid to change their national behavior or policy. From banning landmines to halting sweatshop labor, divestment has become the tool of choice for making a difference.

The divestiture campaign against Israel began nearly two years ago at the University of California, Berkeley. It has spread to Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Michigan and at least 35 other campuses. The list is growing. The goal is to sever universities' financial links to Israel to force it to end what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others refer to as Israeli apartheid.

Archbishop Tutu said earlier this year that he saw "the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about."

In 1999, former South African President 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 among my compatriots."

And Henry Katzew, a former South African journalist now living in Israel, once stated, "What is the difference between the way in which the Jewish people struggles to remain what it is in the midst of a non-Jewish population and the way the Afrikaners try to stay what they are?"

The key to ending apartheid in South Africa was found in the dollar. American organizations demanded that their financial interests such as mutual funds and investments divest from stocks held in companies with involvement in South Africa. The economic pressure became so unbearable that the white Afrikaner regime was forced to end apartheid.

While pro-Israeli organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League vehemently lash out at such comparisons, it is clear that Palestinian anger resulting from the Israeli occupation and daily humiliation requires attention. Further, an additional strategy must be adopted that would show the Palestinians there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

As the respected Jewish Israeli political scientist Ilan Pappe says, "The only thing that can end the Israeli occupation is outside pressure."

Outside pressure has, in fact, been applied in the form of no fewer than 65 U.N. resolutions and frequent condemnations by other countries of Israel's policy of establishing settlements in the occupied territories.

Further, Israel has disregarded statements by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International that accuse its military of actions during the Palestinian uprising that could constitute war crimes. Perhaps hitting Israel in the pocketbook might be the answer to waking Israel up to the world's increasing impatience with its occupation and disregard of international law.

Sadly, some Israeli supporters are now pasting the feared but overused label of "anti-Semitic" onto the new divestiture push. But Semites include Palestinian Arabs.

Further, the anti-Semitic label has been used on many who have been critical of Israeli policies. In his book They Dare to Speak Out, former U.S. Rep. Paul Findley of Illinois lists a number of colleagues who were called anti-Semitic when they voiced concerns about Israel, including former Rep. Paul N. "Pete" McCloskey Jr. of California and former Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois.

Earlier this year, media mogul Ted Turner was called an anti-Semite for accusing Israel of waging terror against Palestinians. And Harvard University President Lawrence Summers has shamelessly classified respected professors as being part of an "anti-Semitic" drive to urge the school to divest its endowment of investments in Israel.

"Anti-Semitic" is often used to conjure up images of the tragic World War II Holocaust in which Jews were systematically killed because of who they were. But that was then and this is now.

Israelis cannot expect to deprive Palestinians of their liberties without criticism or action from the civilized world. And university students and professors should not be harassed and labeled because they seek to use tools such as divestiture in order to bring about peaceful change in a region that has seen little peace.

Sherri Muzher holds a degree in international law and is a media analyst and writer.

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