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There is a time and place for everything, including divestment—but now is not the time, and Israel is not the place.
On Monday, professors from Harvard and MIT presented a petition that calls for the two universities to divest—or sell all the endowments’ investments—from Israeli companies and from companies that do business in Israel, until Israel complies with United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 which calls for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. This preposterous proposal comes at a time when it would do the most harm to Israel. At the moment, Israel is attempting to defend its citizens and its borders from terrorist attacks, as is the right of any sovereign state. This proposal for divestment once again makes Israel the victim of a double standard; Israel is not the only nation that takes strong and forceful action in times of war, yet it is consistently singled out for criticism.
There is no doubt that divestment is a powerful tool, capable of positive change when used properly. It is a moral and economic lever that can coerce people and nations to change unjust practices. But this powerful lever is also a blunt tool; divestment squeezes all the citizens of the target country, whether or not they agree with the government’s decisions. And in this age of globalization and multinational companies, divestment also affects workers in other countries. Because of its power and its bluntness, divestment should be used sparingly.
South Africa in the 1980s was the right time and place for divestment. Apartheid’s racist laws and South Africa’s brutal repression of blacks were morally repugnant. Many institutions, including Harvard, divested their holdings in South African companies, as divestment was incorporated into a larger campaign of international censure, which was one prominent factor that successfully brought an end to the Apartheid system.
But any comparison between today’s Israel and Apartheid-era South Africa is so fundamentally flawed as to be offensive. The Israeli legal code does not discriminate against Arab Israelis the way that the Apartheid laws discriminated against black South Africans. In Israel, the law provides for the equal treatment of all of its citizens, both Jewish and Arab. In South Africa, however, blacks were the victims of laws that controlled their day-to-day lives, dictating where they could live, work and travel. And in South Africa, the government slaughtered blacks when they protested the government’s policies; Israel has done nothing even approaching that level of repression—to either Israeli Arabs or to Palestinians in the West Bank.
Divestment was all the more appropriate in South Africa because it penalized companies that were using the racist laws to their advantage. Many companies exploited the Apartheid system by using cheap black labor. Surely selling a company’s stock, at the very least, is appropriate if that company is taking advantage of human rights violations to make money. But there are no indications that any companies in Israel are taking advantage of human rights violations; in fact, the ongoing violence is doing a great deal of harm to businesses in Israel.
Only when both sides feel safe will peace return to the Middle East. Divesting from Israel would only undermine its sense of security at this difficult time, when it needs all the support it can get. As a result, divestment would be counterproductive to finding a just and lasting peace.
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