For Human Rights

The Harvard/MIT divestment petition would make future U.S. investments in Israel contingent on Israel ending its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, vacating settlements in these territories, renouncing policies of torture and deportation of prisoners and suspects and compensating Palestinian refugees. All of these conditions, which accord with U.N. Security Council resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention, are uncontroversial in most of the world and have considerable support in Israel itself. Here in the United States, however, this petition has elicited a surprising amount of controversy and ill will. Most recently, University President Lawrence H. Summers has condemned the initiative as fostering anti-Semitism. Here we comment on our petition and reply to Summers.

The Middle East is in crisis. Palestinian and Israeli civilians are killed daily in a new escalation of fear, hatred and mistrust. Nevertheless, a solution to this tragedy exists and has been accepted by nearly every country in the world, including ours: Two independent states, the state of Israel occupying its recognized borders and a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. We are convinced that this outcome provides the best hope for the long-term stability and security of all parties in the region. The purpose of our petition is to mobilize the power of the U.S. government and economy to bring about this outcome.

Although Israeli officials frequently claim that Israel favors this solution, Israeli government actions undermine it. Since signing the Oslo accord of 1993, the Israeli settlement population has doubled, displacing Palestinians and expropriating their land and water sources. A network of roads for the exclusive use of Israelis now connects the settlements, separating the remaining Palestinian territory into a patchwork of isolated enclaves. With the vast military and economic support of the United States, these actions place Israel on a course of permanent occupation. We believe this occupation is not only unjust and injurious to the Palestinians but also very harmful to Israel. Much of the danger that Israel now faces comes from the misery and hopelessness of three million people whose land Israel occupies. But although an end to the occupation is in the interests both of Palestinians and of Israelis, it is increasingly unlikely that a peaceful resolution of the conflict will be reached by those parties alone. The main goal of our petition is to encourage the U.S. government and our universities to pressure Israel to make lasting peace possible, and to end its violations of Palestinian human rights.

The signers of this petition have been criticized for proposing one-sided action against Israelis but not Palestinians, showing insensitivity to Israel’s security needs, singling out the human rights abuses by Israel but ignoring abuses elsewhere and fostering anti-Semitism. We consider each point in turn.

Why do we call for an end to military aid and investments in Israel but not the Palestinian territories? First, we believe that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, coupled with a commitment to respect international conventions on human rights, are the most important steps that could be taken to bring peace to the region. Although violence has come from both sides of this conflict, the positions of Israelis and Palestinians are not symmetrical. Millions of Palestinians are living under Israeli occupation, not the reverse. The Israeli government destroys Palestinian homes, schools, hospitals and civic institutions. It imposes curfews and checkpoints on Palestinians, and it has explicitly endorsed torture, assassination and deportation as acceptable actions against those it suspects have engaged in acts of violence. Most important, American government and businesses have not played symmetrical roles in the conflict. Israel receives enormous U.S. military aid and investment, whereas Palestinians receive very little. Were we providing the arms for both sides of this conflict, then it might be reasonable to demand a halt to all our funding of both sides.

Do signers of the divestment petition fail to consider Israel’s security needs? On the contrary, we believe that the two-state outcome sought by this petition offers the best hope of securing Israel’s long-term future. Many Israelis agree, for history has shown again and again that no people will be secure in this region until all people are. Suicide attacks are likely to continue until Palestinians have a stake in peace. The divestment petition aims to create a secure Israel beside a secure Palestine.

Why does the petition single out Israel and ignore violations of human rights committed by other countries? This is a strange criticism, because all social, political and human rights problems must be tackled one by one, as they arise. Protests are initiated when some threshold of concern is reached. The increase of settlement activity, suicide bombings and massive invasion of the West Bank propelled us to take action.

We close with the issue of anti-Semitism, raised by President Summers. Accusations of anti-Semitism have been used effectively for decades to stifle criticism of Israeli policy. The world has been astonishingly silent during decades of Israeli occupation, and many Americans still dare not criticize this policy. When criticisms of Israel are expressed, the charge of anti-Semitism serves to deflect attention from the Israeli governmental actions that prompted the criticisms onto a debate about the morals and motives of the critics. We hope the petition will spark discussion of these issues in the Harvard community, and we invite supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies to join us in an open debate. An open exchange of ideas offers the best hope of progress toward a resolution of the conflict that respects the human rights of Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Elizabeth S. Spelke is a professor of psychology and Ken Nakayama is Pierce professor of psychology.