November 2, 2007

Anti-Israel Divestment Proponents Struggle against a “Defeatist Attitude”

The Friends of Sabeel North America conference in Boston October 26-27 brought together many proponents of corporate divestment as a means of exerting pressure against Israel. Given the recent setbacks suffered by the divestment movement, this conference was an occasion for taking stock of the situation. The policy of withdrawing investment from selected companies that do business with Israel was prominently mentioned in a panel discussion entitled “The Apartheid Paradigm: Responding from the U.S.” The panel strongly endorsed the adoption of divestment plans, but panelists had varying appraisals of their effectiveness to date.

Underlying the discussion was an assumed equivalence between democratic Israel today and the white-ruled South Africa of the 1980s. “We need to use the tools used to dismantle apartheid in South Africa,” said Palestinian-American legal activist Noura Erekat. Erekat argued that a three-stage process employed against South Africa—first divestment, then boycotts, and finally sanctions—was needed to “take on Israel’s character as an ethnocratic state motivated by demographic ambitions.”

David Wildman, Executive Secretary for Human Rights and Racial Justice with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, passes out protest signs for a rally immediately following the Sabeel conference at Old South Church in Boston.

“Are we having an impact?” asked David Wildman, Executive Secretary for Human Rights and Racial Justice with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. “I’ll let you decide, it’s slow.” Wildman noted a series of divestment resolutions presented in various churches and universities, often with little success. “Anyone who has taken part [in divestment advocacy] knows how slow and painful a process it can be,” the United Methodist official said.

Erekat bemoaned media attention shifting from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to “the so-called war on terror.” She said that the divestment movement “appears to be muted” on campuses. Erekat credited this situation not to decreased interest in the issue, but to constant student turnover that was weakening the movement. She specifically singled out the anti-Caterpillar divestment/boycott campaign as being too broad to be effective and not deep enough.

“We have lost so many times that we have internalized a defeatist attitude,” lamented Erekat.

Several mainline denominations have recently addressed the divestment issue, most prominently the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In 2004 its General Assembly passed a resolution directing church agencies “to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” When the denomination was criticized for what many viewed as a one-sided policy, the church’s subsequent General Assembly in 2006 reversed course. The 2006 Assembly urged “that financial investments of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, be invested in only peaceful pursuits.” This latter resolution pointedly avoided singling out Israel as a target for divestment.

“We need to thank our Presbyterian brothers and sisters for all the criticism they have faced” for the 2004 divestment instruction, said Wildman. Within his own United Methodist Church, several local conferences have passed pro-divestment resolutions, but there is no such policy on a denominational level.

Another mainline denomination, the 1.2-million-member United Church of Christ, recently expressed second thoughts about its 2005 divestment resolution. A resolution adopted at the recent 2007 UCC General Synod admitted, “The escalating violence between Fatah and Hamas now calls us to consider whether we may have overlooked many aspects of an extraordinarily complicated situation.”

Boston’s historic Old South Church hosted the Friends of Sabeel North America conferernce.

None of the panelists made any mention of the violent confrontations between Hamas and Fatah militias inside the Palestinian territories. Instead their criticisms were focused exclusively on Israel—and, by extension, the United States.

“Over 50 percent of the U.N. vetoes passed by the United States since 1970 were to block criticism of Israel,” said Wildman. “Thirty percent were to block criticism of apartheid South Africa.” He lumped the two types of U.S. vetoes together, concluding that “80 percent were in support of apartheid [policies] overall.”

The idea behind divestment resolutions is that Israel is able to continue its occupation of the Palestinian territories only through the assistance of the United States – either by direct military support, or by commerce with American companies.

“We the taxpayers are supporting Israel’s apartheid policies,” charged Dr. Nancy Murray of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

Wildman denounced “increased and repeated [U.S.] arms shipments to one side [Israel].” He claimed, “We [the U.S.] are saying the violence committed by [Israeli] settlers and colonists is good and violence by the indigenous [Palestinians] is bad.”

Wildman concluded by suggesting that divestment efforts continue by targeting Motorola, a company he claims has benefited through the construction of cellular towers in Israeli settlements and the sale of electronics to Israeli Defense Forces.

“Erosion doesn’t happen overnight,” counseled Wildman. “We need to erode apartheid.” He insisted, “We do not need a program for peace in Israel/Palestine; we need a program for justice.”

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