In a special ceremony held on Sept. 18, 1998, Harvard University conferred an honorary degree upon Nelson Mandela. Addressing the president of the University, Mandela said: “I know that through this award you are not so much recognizing any individual achievement, but are rather paying tribute to the struggles and achievements of the South African people as a whole.”
Harvard wasn’t always so eager to take a stand against apartheid. In April of 1979, then-president Derek Bok penned an open letter explaining Harvard’s refusal to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. The letter expressed reluctance to use “the leverage of our purchases, our endowment, and our prestige as a university to push for social and political ends.”
Years of student protest followed, and by 1985 the global divestment movement had gained so much momentum in the Harvard community that The Crimson published a headline: “Every Word Heard is Divestment.” The administration still refused to divest. The following year, Desmond Tutu stood in the Kennedy School forum and urged Harvard to avoid being on the wrong side of history. “We’re going to be free,” the archbishop said, “and 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.’” After another semester of intense protest, including a student-built shantytown in front of University Hall and the blockading of faculty meetings on Quincy Street, Harvard finally relented.
Today, Harvard has another opportunity to get on the right side of history. 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Until recently I, like many Americans, preferred to keep this issue at arm’s length. I was raised in a fairly pro-Israel milieu and would have regarded the use of the term “occupation” in this context as a rhetorical red flag. I largely saw the Palestinian cause as a radical, Molotov cocktail-throwing mess.
Then I visited the West Bank. In Ramallah, I was surprised to find myself dodging not thrown stones, but rather hurried Palestinian businessmen in Italian suits, sprinting off to meetings in glistening new office buildings. Students chatted in posh cafes and bars. There was an Alfa Romeo dealership. Our group of Harvard graduate students met with Palestinian CEOs trying to jumpstart real estate development and an independent telecoms industry. Not exactly the terrorist-riddled ash heap I’d foolishly expected.
But Palestine was a paradox. Alongside this development and apparent normalcy, there was also the stark reality of military occupation. We passed Israeli soldiers on the roadside pointing M-16s at prostrate Palestinian teenagers. We were harassed by fanatical settlers—the only time we had stones thrown at us. An Israeli soldier told us he wasn’t allowed to enforce the law against settlers—he’d have to call the police to do that—but he could shoot any offending Palestinian with few questions asked. We passed through the innumerable military checkpoints that bedevil the day-to-day errands of Palestinians. Everywhere, The Wall loomed ominously.
Every Palestinian business leader we met with told us how difficult the occupation made it for them to operate. They all had to carry multiple special forms of ID and difficult-to-obtain permits to move freely about the country. Palestinians have separate ID cards, separate license plates, separate roads. It is illegal for Palestinian even to be in a car with a yellow Israeli plate. Israel also applies these rules to US citizens who are ethnically Palestinian. And this is just the West Bank. Gaza is a large, open-air prison where the UN reports that the tap water is contaminated and chronic malnutrition is a fact of life. We were barred from entering.
If this isn’t apartheid, I don’t know what is. I used to find that word radical, but after visiting the West Bank and seeing the reality with my own eyes, it seems like a more than fair description for a half-century of occupation under these conditions. I also came to the realization that the Palestinian cause itself is probably the least radical cause in the world. When you boil it down, most Palestinians are really only asking to be allowed to live in peace on land where their families have been living for generations, not to remake human society in some kind of revolutionary cataclysm.
Harvard should divest from companies supporting the occupation. Like the South African divestment movement, the Palestinian-led divestment movement spent its first decade or so in the wilderness. But over the past few years, it has begun to gather steam as major organizations like the Presbyterian Church USA have participated. Opponents claim that divestment is anti-Semitic and seeks to destroy Israel. This is a bit hysterical. It’s hard to practically envision how a nonviolent, economic boycott could destroy a state. The charges of anti-Semitism are belied by the young American Jewish movements like Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Jewish academics that support divestment. It’s time for Harvard to join them.
I want to be clear that I am not attempting to speak for the Palestinian people or the divestment movement, but that I write as a supporter and an ally in an attempt to influence our community, Harvard University, to support their cause. I hope it won’t take our university as long to see the light on this issue as it did with South African divestment.
Matthew B. McDole ’18 is a masters degree candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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