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The Divestment Petition Demonizes Jews

By Jay M. Harris

In the hope of shifting the debate on divestment from Israel to the real issue—the nature of the divestment campaign—and not the specious accusations regarding University President Lawrence H. Summers’ speech on the issue, I would like to suggest why I believe the campaign is properly characterized as “anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent.” I would like to look carefully—if necessarily briefly—at the strategy of the campaign and the rhetoric of the petition, in order to show how it implicitly demonizes Jews.

Supporters of the divestment campaign insist they seek to protest the policies of the Sharon government, and not to de-legitimize Israel. I do not doubt the sincerity of this claim, although I cannot help but be bewildered by the Manichean world-view some display. It seems that some of the signers believe that one can only be a supporter of divestment or a supporter of the government of Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon. This belief is apparent in Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Spelke’s and Pierce Professor of Psychology Ken Nakayama’s invitation “to the supporters of Sharon’s policies to join us in an open debate.” They argue as if one cannot oppose them and Sharon. Nevertheless, I have no reason to think such peculiar reasoning is shared by all signers. More importantly, I readily acknowledge that the signers known to me personally are not people to be suspected of conscious bigotry of any kind. Thus, I fully endorse Summers’ view that there is no intentional anti-Semitism in this campaign.

However, given the history of the divestment strategy and its earlier target, the claim that only the policies of the Sharon government are targeted here seems strikingly naive. As we learn from the precedent of South Africa, divestment is a tool far too powerful and destructive to express opposition to a set of specific policies in any focused way (apartheid was much too pervasive a political and social phenomenon to be called a policy). Rather, the divestment strategy was aimed at the very foundations of a morally repugnant state. Whatever the intent of the signers, the strategy chosen cannot help but say that we as a moral community cannot tolerate our hands being dirtied by association with the State of Israel. Summers understood this well when he described the campaign as seeking “to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested.” Demonizing the Jewish State as uniquely repugnant, worse even than Sudan—as the campaign implicitly does—is something that most Jews cannot help but see as “anti-Semitic in effect.”

Furthermore, the petition’s justification for the campaign suggests that Israel and Israel alone is responsible for all the misery in the region. Such a suggestion displays willful ignorance of the history of the conflict; it ignores the fact that whenever in the last 10 years there was movement toward a settlement—that is, movement toward the end of occupation for the Palestinians, and an end of belligerency for all—Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians increased. It ignores the fact that many of the most violent Palestinian groups have been quite forthright regarding their goals: They do not seek the end of occupation as Westerners normally understand that term. Rather, they seek the “liberation” of all historic Palestine from the “Zionist invaders.” While I do not doubt that many of the signers of the petition will dismiss these concerns as Jewish paranoia, they are easily documented, and must be taken unto account. Taking them into account means that it is not at all clear that “ending occupation” will in fact bring peace and security to the region; it is, of course, not clear that it will not. Yet, despite the uncertainties that efforts towards peaceful compromise will bear any fruit, Israel has made significant efforts to reach an agreement. But such acknowledgement would undermine the basic Manichean structure of the petitioners’ narrative in which all blame rests entirely with the Jews.

Put simply, the petitioners prefer to reduce the complexity of the situation to a cartoon in which Palestinians stand on the side of the angels, which leaves the Jews right where, at an earlier time, many Christian zealots were quite happy to put them, on the side of the demons. If such a simplistic and narrative line is not “anti-Semitic in effect” what is?

Most disturbing of all: in the midst of a litany of alleged Israeli crimes, the petition states, “We find the recent attacks on Israeli citizens unacceptable and abhorrent. But these should not and do not negate the human rights of the Palestinians.” We are all familiar with the strategy of damning with faint praise; here we confront the strategy of faint condemnation. A condemnation this perfunctory, this ritualistic, so immediately abandoned, condemns nothing and no one. The thought seems to be, “Ideally, Palestinians would not be killing them; but we cannot allow the fact that they are killing them to divert our gaze for more than a moment from the plight of the Palestinians.”

That is, in my reading, we confront here a world-view that assigns greater moral value to the lives of some human beings—Palestinian civilians—than to the lives of others—Israeli civilians (not all of them Jews, to be sure). Here the petition’s rhetoric is simply shameful, its dehumanizing effects thoroughly offensive. Yet again, Summers got it right: anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent.

I do not know if any of this is what President Summers had in mind in his speech. The thoughts expressed here represent my view of the anti-Semitic effects of the divestment campaign and its rhetoric. What I do know is that, like the president, I have no interest in stifling debate, and do not believe that criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic. But criticism that can see nothing but evil on one side, and virtually no evil on the other, that values some lives more than others, has the inevitable effect of demonizing one of the parties, and takes us nowhere but back to a time that ought never to be revisited.

Jay M. Harris is Wolfson professor of Jewish studies.

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