Entering the fall semester of 2001, I expected that the dominant political cause on American college campuses was going to be divestment from Israel. Two weeks into the term, on September 11, the prediction became irrelevant.
But the effort to financially attack Israel, to single it out as a pariah state, never became obsolete. The divestment movement in the United States only went into a form of suspended animation, and now, after eight years, it has resumed agitation. In certain respects, the effort promises to be more forceful and more dangerous as a result of all that has happened in the intervening time.
Lest there be any confusion, I should say that I oppose divestment against Israel and have written so on a number of occasions. Still, the same old arguments against divestment may not work so well this time around, both because of what is similar to and what is different from the American political climate on September 10, 2001.
The template for the divestment campaign was established in the 1980s with the successful effort to have universities, pension funds, cities, even entire states sell off the stock of companies involved in South Africa. A growing and sophisticated population of Muslim-Americans supplied the passionate rank-and-file for the campaign against Israel. And the passive or active involvement of many American Jews in the anti-apartheid movement left them tongue-tied and embarrassed when it came to contending why Israel shouldn’t taste the same harsh medicine.
The al-Qaeda attacks on Washington and New York instantly changed the equation. Even on campuses, redoubts of pacifism, the prevailing mood turned chilly toward anything resembling advocacy for the Islamic world. The following spring brought the spate of suicide attacks within sovereign Israel, most notably at the seder in a Netanya hotel, that at least temporarily created a surge of unified American Jewish outrage. Almost exactly one year later, in March 2003, President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, making the war and occupation there the focus of the activist Left.
DESPITE ALL those distractions, nobody should have entertained any illusions that the divestment campaign – and the related efforts to boycott Israeli academics and protest performances by Israeli cultural groups – would subside. In fact, it was during 2005 and 2006, when so much attention was going toward the seeming American failure in Iraq, that new elements were being added to the infrastructure of the divestment movement – the creation of Israel Apartheid Week and the formation of the Boycott, Divest, Sanction coalition.
Now the Iraq war, or at least the American piece of it, is winding down. George W. Bush, out of office, has stopped providing one-stop-shopping for left-wing and liberal protest. For all its mendacity, the 2008 book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on the Israel lobby has succeeded in one of its goals – making it socially and politically permissible to trot out that conspiracy theory. The canard has permeated public discussion of the withdrawal of Charles Freeman, a caustic critic of Israel, as one of President Obama’s top intelligence advisers.
Meanwhile, the facts on the Middle East ground have put Israel’s advocates in a nearly untenable position. As Yossi Klein Halevi has often pointed out, both the settlement enterprise and the Oslo effort failed to achieve their fantastic goals. Now Hamas has succeeded in undermining the last realistic hope for partition: unilateral separation. In the wake of the recent Israeli elections, the formation of a right-wing coalition with the polarizing Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister cannot help but frustrate many American Zionists in their desire to plead Israel’s cause.
The two-state solution, to the degree it has any salience, now qualifies as the conservative position. The liberal stance is the vision of a unitary state. No longer the property of river-to-sea settlers, it has returned after 60 years to its leftist parentage, now intermingled with Islamists.
And when it comes to the rhetoric about a unitary state, American Zionists (and perhaps Israelis, as well) do not fully grasp the potency of the South African analogy. They spend a lot of energy and verbiage making the case that Israel does not practice apartheid, but they haven’t come up with nearly as effective an answer for why the South African model of peaceful transformation, full enfranchisement and majority rule shouldn’t be applied to Israel and the Palestinian territories as well. It is easier to answer to the cynicism of the apartheid analogy than the optimism of the Mandela-DeKlerk compromise.
So consider the current divestment activity at such colleges as Hampshire, Haverford, NYU, Macalaster, and Columbia as just the start of a new phase of struggle. Pay close attention when someone like the author Naomi Klein, a rock star to young activists, endorses divestment, because she matters a lot more on campus than alter kockers like Noam Chomsky. And don’t assume, this time, that our side is destined to win.