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Dialogue Over Divestment

Nearly thirty years ago, as protests and tensions over Apartheid South Africa gripped the international community, the Institute of Politics hosted activist and archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu turned his focus to Harvard’s investments in South African companies. He called for the university to make decisions that would place it on the right side of history, saying, “When we get to the other side of this liberation game, we would like to be able to say, ‘You know something, Harvard University was with us.’”

Today, another debate over divestment has taken hold, except this time it concerns the small Middle Eastern nation that has managed to capture the global spotlight time and time again: Israel. The troublesome situation in the West Bank and Gaza has garnered attention from people and nations around the world. Many draw similarities to South Africa, calling for the same kinds of divestments and invoking the same desires to be vindicated in the years to come. In particular, passion has emerged on American college campuses. This March, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee at Harvard sponsored an “Israeli Apartheid Week,” while student governments at other schools have proposed measures to divest from Israel.

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Despite its recent momentum, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions—the moniker for the Israel divestment movement—remains an abhorrent tactic. Rather than opening discussion, it rejects dialogue. Rather than searching for a compromise of peace, it seeks destruction. And rather than encouraging understanding, it provides for divisiveness. The situation in Israel is not analogous to the one that existed in South Africa—attempts to mimic the methods of anti-Apartheid activists only push us further away from a peaceful solution.

By its nature, BDS impedes meaningful dialogue about the issues at hand. Opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not binary; those on either side of the debate hold a wide range of beliefs. BDS simultaneously groups all supporters of Israel together and rejects the fundamental legitimacy of their convictions.

BDS further places the onus of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entirely on Israel’s shoulders. Palestinians must bear some of the responsibility as well in order to facilitate any serious attempt at compromise. In South Africa, a minority of whites denied the rights and dignity of the black majority and was unwilling to alter national policies until the pressure of the 1980s—end of story. The tale of Israelis and Palestinians is far more complex and nuanced. Since 1947, there have been numerous instances of Israeli attempts at peace and subsequent rejections by Palestinians. During the War of Independence, there was not only a displacement of Arabs from what would become Israel, but also an exodus of Jews from countries throughout the Middle East. None of this is to say that the current Israeli-Palestinian problems should be neglected, but rather that no one side ought to carry the duty for fixing them. On a campus like ours, with such a strong tradition of mutual expression and open-ended debate, BDS represents the antithesis of a proper problem-solving mechanism.

Another, perhaps more important, reason for the objectionableness of BDS is the dissonance between its stated goals and the effect it would truly have. According to the movement’s official website, BDS seeks boycotts until Israel “end[s] its occupation and colonization” of the disputed territories, grants “full equality” to Arab-Palestinians in Israel, and ensures “the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.” However, as Norman Finkelstein, American author and notably harsh critic of Israel, explains, the combination of a right of return for refugees (and their descendants) to Israel—rather than a newly created Palestinian state—and the granting of permitting of full citizenship to all such individuals would mean the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.

Arabs in Israel proper ought to have equal citizenship and voting rights—as they do currently—but an influx of millions of new possible citizens would extinguish Israel’s inherent existence as Jewish, a status that is upheld both by values and by demography. There is surely a continuing debate over what it means for a state to be Jewish and what the implications of such an identity are in a democracy. This discussion ought to continue, but BDS alleges to focus on ensuring rights for Palestinians, not challenging Jewish self-determination. The movement claims itself agnostic on state politics so long as individual liberties are not violated. Boycotts of South Africa had the objective and the effect of dismantling the Apartheid regime and establishing a new political system. In contrast, BDS does not, at least on the surface, advocate for the end of Israel as a Jewish state, even though that is exactly the impact it would have.

There is no question that real and lasting change must come to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The present situation is unsustainable, and a two-state solution is in the interest of all parties. The difficulty comes in getting there, a feat that can only be accomplished through dialogue and interaction. BDS discourages and even disallows both. Just days before Apartheid Week began at Harvard, a group called Heartbeat held an interfaith performance at the Law School with the goal of bringing together Israelis and Palestinians through music. We need movements that allow the many sides of the conflict to come together rather than ones that intentionally pull them apart, neglect communication, and strive towards questionable ends. Opposing BDS is not synonymous with opposing the rights of Palestinians or a two-state solution. It is an acknowledgement of a move forward in the peace process.


Gregory A. Briker ’17 is a Crimson editorial writer in Wigglesworth Hall.

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