Toss out the divestment red herrings

This is a republication of an original article written by Jaclyn Schiff in the Washington Jewish Week on Wednesday, May 3, 2006.

On Palestinian Land Day a few weeks ago, George Washington University became the launch site of a “divest from Israel” campaign. Third-year law student Fadi Kiblawi and Arab American News columnist Will Youmans announced plans to ask university administrators to divest from Israeli companies.

Neither Kiblawi nor Youmans is a stranger to divestment campaigns. Kiblawi came to GWU from the University of Michigan, and Youmans promoted a divestment campaign at University of California, Berkeley. Incidentally, neither the Michigan nor the Berkley campaign worked.

In discussing the Palestinian struggle, both Youmans and Kiblawi repeatedly compared modern-day Israel to pre-1994 South Africa’s apartheid regime. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the analogy, and as a pro-Israel South African, it was not the first time I was disturbed by it, either.

Like virtually everyone else, I want a pragmatic and peaceful resolution, but I find divestment to be a strategy that complicates peace and promotes anything but coexistence.

If these efforts were successful, they would harm Israelis and Palestinians indiscriminately by denying everyone in the region valuable capital and resources. Divestment would end up causing harm to those it purports to assist and perpetuate problems rather than solve them.

Other charges aside, even divestment’s basic foundation is riddled with red herrings. At the March 30 event, both Kiblawi and Youmans acknowledged that their campaign is modeled on the tactics used by campus activists in the late 1980s against apartheid South Africa.

In my experience, divestment activists often casually label anything from a fence to a policy “apartheid.” As someone who grew up in South Africa, I often wonder how many of those who champion the term, “apartheid,” could accurately define its meaning or even correctly identify its linguistic origin. Few words have been more abused than apartheid.

I’d like just one divestment activist to make the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa to a black South African, such as Maggie Masipha ‹ a women in her 50s, who grew up when apartheid policies were most stringent. Tell her about Israel’s racist policies that allowed for the appointment of Salim Joubran, an Israeli-Arab judge to its Supreme Court in 2003. Ask her if, while she was sitting on the “blacks only” bench, she was allowed to go out and vote, let alone play an influential role in her country’s judicial process.

While Palestinians and Arabs lecture at and attend every Israeli university, it was illegal for Mrs. Masipha to attend any South African university under the National Party’s rule. Tell her how Israel’s draconian policies give professors like Sari Nusseibeh (who recently opposed the boycott of Israeli universities by the United Kingdom’s Association of University Teachers) rights to academic freedom.

Divestment activists seem to delight in quoting South African politicians and personalities who agree with their assessment of the situation. I can give you an equal amount of quotes from notable pro-Israel South Africans, such as Tony Leon, the leader of South Africa’s largest opposition party. But quotes and alliances are politically motivated and rarely speak accurately to the situation on the ground. I lived in South Africa for 15 years (during apartheid and in its aftermath), and I have visited Israel three times.

I’d be remiss to say that Israel didn’t remind me of my experience in South Africa at all. Whereas Israelis will think about where to sit in a coffee shop to convince themselves that they have minimized the possibility they will die in the event of a bomb, South Africans will drive through red lights late at night because stopping would increase the risk of a carjacking. The nature of the violence is different, but the situations are parallel. Like South Africans, Israelis know they are targets anytime and anywhere.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not denying that Palestinians do suffer habitual rights violations and that there is much work that has to be done to improve their situation.

But it is unclear to me how divesting from Israel attempts to achieve this end.

About the Author

A senior at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Relations, Jaclyn Schiff is the Jewish Student Association’s vice president for Israel affairs and a South African national.