Divestment: A Curiously Strong Moral Activity
“Divestment: A Curiously Strong Moral Activity”
by Dr. Paul Beran
Sunday 11 December 2005
For the Conference: Israel/Palestine: Where Do We Go From Here? A Teach-In And Organizing Conference
Sunday December 11, 1pm – 7pm, Harvard University, Boylston Hall
I would like to thank the organizers for making possible this conference on Palestine-Israel. For my part, I will work to keep my remarks brief. In them I hope to do the following: Define divestment, give a rough overview of divestment in the Israel-Palestine conflict from the United States example, and finally, to isolate some ideas that might help all of us use divestment in our on-going work for peace, justice and human rights.
In the last 18 months, civic groups and churches in the United States have independently launched campaigns to divest financially from companies profiting from the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian’s. Divestment, as I define it, is using targeted withdrawals of investment monies from companies and organizations profiting from situations of extreme human rights violations to bring about positive human rights change. In the case of divestment in the situation of Israel-Palestine this means primarily calling attention to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinians and the human suffering it brings upon Palestinians and Israelis.
Divestment groups have targeted town governments, university boards and religious bodies in an effort to publicly spotlight the low standards that human rights have been accorded in the U.S.-dominated "peace process" between Israel and the Palestinians. The US based Presbyterian Church (USA), a body of some 2.5 million American Protestant Christians, has taken the most aggressive step so far. In the summer of 2004 at the annual meeting of the church, they voted to study the selective divestment of their pension funds from companies profiting from the Israeli military occupation.
The church has paid a price for daring to criticize Israel's human rights record. In November 2004, church leaders were threatened with violence, called anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli for their stance. One hate message the church received said: "I promise violence against Presbyterian churches, they will go up in flames - that's a terrorist threat." Beside these words was a hand-drawn swastika. In addition to these attacks, the church has been publicly rebuked by other ardent pro-Israel supporters.
But, it is wrong to think that this church is the only group addressing the on-going human rights concerns of Palestine-Israel through campaigns of divestment. In addition to their activities the first municipality in the U.S. to publicly be asked to divest its funds from Israel was Somerville, Massachusetts. In November 2004 a local group with over 1,000 citizen signatures in-hand asked the town council to divest their pension funds from companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation. Passage of the resolution, which was non-binding, should have been easy; Somerville has a tradition of using its pension funds to uphold human rights; it banned investment in Burma due to its human rights abuses.
However, with the perception among much of the public in the U.S. that Israel is always right, it was no surprise what happened when the resolution was presented to the town council. It was bashed by anti-divestment supporters as anti-Semitic, bad for business, bad for organized labor and bigoted. The town mayor, the pension-fund manager and even elected state representatives were all recruited by pro-Israel groups to urge the council to vote "no." Ironically, the message put across by many anti-divestment supporters was that the resolution, if passed, would hurt the chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In the logic of some people in America it seems that an act against Israel's military occupation is also a step away from peace. As a coda to this, the continuing efforts of the divestment campaign in Somerville have been cut short by a ruling from the authorities recently that their legal and well-organized petition drive to get divestment on the ballot in Somerville was illegitimate.
Reaction to both the Presbyterian Church and the Somerville campaigns to divest highlights a growing problem for Israel's image. Until now, those who acted as if "Israel is always right" enjoyed a near monopoly over U.S. attitudes. Calls for divestment, however, have the potential to become the Achilles heel for pro-Israel perceptions in the U.S. So far, Israel is not worried about moves in the U.S. to divest from its economy. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom seemed to know little about such actions when a reporter asked him about divestment campaigns at a news conference last winter. Given the paltry sums involved Israel is not concerned that its bonds will not sell in international financial markets anytime soon.
This reality gets at the core of the purpose for divestment campaigns against Israel's human rights abuses. Such campaigns are not failures if they are unable to cripple the economics of Multi-National Corporations. Instead divestment achievement should be judged by the growth they foster in the number of Americans who are committed to speaking out against the abuses of the occupation. Consider this: At the town council meeting where the divestment resolution was presented in Somerville, an hour of anti-divestment speakers took the stage followed by a stronger one-hour parade of speakers in support of divestment. Many of those from the town who spoke for divestment were people who said they did not want their funds to sustain the neglect of human rights. Others - Palestinians, Israelis, American Jews, Muslims and Christians - used personal and faith-based arguments, including the fact that divestment was consistent with faith beliefs on human rights and justice. This confluence of interests of diverse groups and actors, united by a common desire to end Israel's occupation, was a sign of hope.
From the examples of Somerville and the PC (USA) on divestment I think an angle with which to view such campaigns is that they carry the potential to be effective tools for waging a non-violent guerilla struggle to end the occupation. They do so because they create new platforms for re-injecting human rights as an orientating plank into the discussions on how to end the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The divestment campaigns show that there is untapped power open to movements to divest due to reasons of human rights issues. Above all, as activists we must see the divestment opportunities for what they are, rare chances to add value to our on-going peace and justice work. Divestment by non-economic entities such as civil society groups that are relatively small are not campaigns to truly move corporations or governments to change their business habits and those of the markets they serve. Instead, the divestment issue is a chance to air the human rights side of things, and to get a hearing based on them, in the public square. For the Somerville Campaign, the PC (USA) and other groups throughout the US and globally, divestment campaigns have opened up the possibility to discuss, confront and move the discussion of a justice based solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict towards a greater consideration of equality, justice and freedom for all people.
As I see it, there are three conditions that are necessary to have a successful divestment campaign. I would like to ask that we consider these three areas in our individual works for peace and justice in Israel-Palestine. Above all, I see these three conditions as unlocking the possibility for us all to use divestment in our peace and justice work.
First, campaigns for divestment need to be conceived with an eye to constructing long-term networks of broad based support for action. In the case of the PC (USA) divestment program this was not a reality in the beginning. The passage of the divestment amendment in the governing body of the church happened too fast and was unexpected. Despite this, a number of groups that cross the spectrum of involvement became supportive as the church reached out for help. These groups helped to partner with the PC (USA) in their divestment campaign. Among the active groups in support of the church is Jewish Voice for Peace, the largest Jewish peace organization in the US. Their statement of support for the PC (USA) and the idea of divestment was a major step forward. Not only did it show cross group solidarity, Christians and Jews, but it helped the PC (USA) to deal more forcefully with the criticism it has and continues to receive from Zionist groups and their ilk. Other groups, the Israel Committee Against Home Demolitions, Sabeel and notable figures, such as Desmond Tutu, have backed divestment and called for it to go forward. In part because of this broad based coalition divestment has been picked up as an issue by a variety of other groups, decidedly more timidly, unfortunately. Church groups, the Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, and scores of universities are all considering divestment as a way to implement their social rights agendas. The first step for divestment campaigns is to have a broad base of cross-community support on which to fall back when the Zionist backlash against the campaigns commences.
Second, divestment campaigns should be rooted in a solid concern for human rights. If divestment is rooted in seeking only rights for Palestinians, or if it glosses over the violations of human rights of Israelis by militant Palestinian groups, it runs the risk of smacking of hypocrisy. Because divestment is a tool to discuss issues of concern and to advocate a non-status quo way of conceiving and solving the Palestine-Israel conflict, there needs to be serious effort given to establishing any activity on the moral high ground. A prominent human rights first agenda provides such a grounding. In the case of the on-going campaigns around the US this focus has helped to single out Zionists for their racist and ethnically focused concern in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Perhaps the most developed in this manner is the PC (USA). Their extensive background material on their stance for divestment is rooted in three sources: Existing social witness policy of the church, a long history of global human rights focused work in the Middle East and in particular Israel-Palestine, and a long-term concern that their specific call for divestment with companies profiting from Israel’s occupation adhere to UN standards of human rights. Included in their list of companies from which they are considering divestment is Citibank, due to their transfer of monies that aid Palestinian militant groups that have used terror tactics against Israeli civilians. Above all, for divestment campaigns to be forceful, there is a need to advocate on a high plane of moral values. This high plane must be above the narrow pursuit of Palestinian rights in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Third, campaigns for divestment must be ready to fight, albeit non-violently. As the campaigns of Somerville, the PC (USA) and in other locations show, Zionist sympathizers will not simply allow divestment to go forward without a fight. They will use all manner of shaming tactics, direct threats of violence and implicit and explicit intimidation through third parties to achieve their ends. Without the foundation of divestment on the first two bases, that of a broad base of support and adherence to a high level of moral concern, these attacks, despite their despicable nature, may well succeed. For the PC (USA) a group that mainline Zionists organizations thought was thoroughly in the pocket of their pro-Israel worldview until the divestment issue, intimidation has come from many sources. The ADL, that modicum of high browed Zionism, and oh yes, stopping discrimination against others as well, has accused the church of siding with the Palestinians. Such watch dog groups as Divestment Watch, which bills itself as Leading the Battle Against the Illegal Divest from Israel Campaign has a section of its website dedicated to an Action Alert focused on gaining support for the Presbyterian Petition against the PC (USA)’s Divestment Campaign. Most troubling is the support that members of Congress have given to publicly chastising the church for its stance and their petition of the church to rescind its measure.
Despite these attacks the church has stood fast. I would argue as well that it has gained a measure of success with its strong, passionate and skilful responses to each accuser. Take the response from the church to the Members of Congress Letter of 13 September 2004. In it the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, the administrative pope of sorts for the church, had this to say: “I am in receipt of your letter indicating you are terribly distressed by the action of the church in seeking a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. I very much regret your disappointment, but in all candor, must also communicate with you that I am terribly distressed at the failure of the US congress to seek a peaceful resolution to this conflict that would both protect the right of Israel to live in peace with secure borders and the rights of the Palestinians to statehood and end of the occupation to their territory. Perhaps if the US congress had been more forthright in seeking such a resolution for Israel and Palestine, it would not have been necessary for our General Assembly to take this further action to achieve our long-term commitment for peace and well being for both Israel and Palestinians.” The Stated Clerk goes on to list the biblical and interfaith relations of the church concerning peace, justice, social welfare and how they all apply to the situation of Israel-Palestine. After that he re-tells the present situation in the OTs, the wall, humanitarian emergencies brought on by the occupation and the unconditional support of the US and its political operatives, such as the congress, to Israel and its devastating policies of violence and human rights violations against the Palestinians.
This response of the church was strong, clear and polite. It minced no words, and it did not shrink from the fight. But, it did so with a clear history, a strong moral backdrop of policy and a balanced understanding of what it hoped to achieve. As I look at this example, I see that the divestment issue has made it possible for the church to articulate their message to non-traditional sources. It is likely that they would never have received the pulpit from which to speak about their human rights concerns in Israel-Palestine without divestment. That in and of itself is a notable achievement.
If we look past the divestment campaigns, and their sisters, the growing movement for boycott and sanctions, when can we say that success has been achieved? One way to gauge it is that success is realized when Palestinians and Israelis are free to be seen by the other as fully equal, fully deserving of human rights and fully able to actualize them in historic Palestine. Divestment is a long-term campaign option that must be used as a tool to bring activists and others together, united by a shared concern that human rights and being human is the operating principle of the world we seek. Divestment needs to be about condemning ethnically or religiously based human rights systems. Unless we work to achieve this broad goal we run the risk of being merely a non-violent presence in the on-going conflict. While our intentions in doing so might be good, I do not think they will aid the eventual success of the goals we seek.
In closing I would like pass on a relevant thought of the Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter and his discussion of language in political activity. “Language of the state”, he says, “is actually employed to keep thought at bay…You don’t need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it’s very comfortable.” And so as we contemplate divestment campaigns and their uncomfortableness in our society, we too can think of phrases used against them: Anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish, anti-peace, unhelpful, unconstructive, hurtful to the Palestinians, dangerous, aggressive, stupid, ill-informed, racist, and anti-Israel. Divestment is about none of these suffocating words. If done right, divestment redeems language and makes it a servant of truth and of demands for human rights. Divestment is for human rights, and it is effective. I encourage you all wholeheartedly to join a campaign or start one today.