What on earth will it take to persuade Israel to leave the occupied territories? Sometimes it seems as if nothing will work. For eight years now, the Arab Peace Initiative, which early Zionist leaders would have seen as a dream-come-true, has been collecting dust. Its terms include two states based on the pre-1967 borders, a mutually agreed-upon solution to the Palestinian refugee crisis, and normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and the entire Arab world. What once would have appeared to many to be Israel’s salvation now seems impossible given Israel’s entrenched colonial position in the West Bank and the settlers’ political power.
Perhaps American college students can help bring Israel to its senses. This past March 18, members of the student senate at the University of California, Berkeley, voted to recommend to the university’s governing board of regents that they divest their holdings in General Electric and United Technologies – two companies that have profited from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, its demolition of Palestinian homes, its aggressive campaign in Gaza last year, and the expansion of settlements. Although Berkeley’s student government is not the first in the United States to vote for a divestment recommendation of this nature, it is by far the most significant.
To be clear, the student bill does not call for a comprehensive form of divestment, and only targets companies involved in Israel’s occupation and military misadventures.
Some see the divestment proposal as counter-productive. “From the standpoint of advancing the causes of peace and justice for Palestinians, the Berkeley bill is worse than useless,” claimed Haaretz’s Bradley Burston in a recent column. Burston dismissed the idea of selling “some pension fund shares in American companies which make military aircraft engines” because those companies will “continue to sell them to Israel, regardless of the vote.”
But if history is any guide, Berkeley’s divestment measure could have a positive impact. In the 1980s, Berkeley’s student government was one of the first at any U.S. institution of higher learning to vote to recommend divestment from South Africa’s apartheid regime. The UC system’s board of regents initially resisted the divestment call, but student protests eventually led the regents to divest funds from companies with ties to South Africa. Eventually other campuses and local municipalities took similar actions.
The United States government, formerly one of the chief enablers of apartheid, followed the lead of the students, passing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986. The legislation prohibited all new U.S. trade and investment in South Africa, and stated five preconditions for lifting the sanctions, including a timeline for ending apartheid laws and the release of Nelson Mandela.
“In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of nonviolent means, such as boycotts and divestments, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime. Students played a leading role in that struggle,” Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a letter to Berkeley’s student government endorsing the current divestment bill.
Whether one sees Israel as an apartheid-like regime or not, certainly the aforementioned history could offer lessons in how to end the occupation. If more American college campuses and local agencies pass divestment measures, eventually members of U.S. Congress may come to see that they must listen to their pro-justice, pro-peace constituents and not only to AIPAC. If that happens, a U.S. anti-occupation act could become a possibility.
If the U.S. government were to seriously pressure Israel – for example, by conditioning $3 billion in annual aid on an end to the occupation and implementation of an equitable peace agreement – perhaps that would provide the incentive necessary to end the occupation.
Although the Berkeley student president subsequently vetoed the divestment bill, and AIPAC’s lobbying of student senators successfully prevented an override vote by the narrowest of margins, the proposal’s eventual passage seems inevitable. That will turn the spotlight onto the university regents, who will face protests if they don’t follow the divestment recommendation.
We who promoted and rallied for this bill are a remarkably diverse coalition of Jews, Christians and Muslims; Israelis and Palestinians; and Americans of all backgrounds. Prominent Jewish supporters included Ofra Ben Artzi, sister-in-law of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Hedy Epstein, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor.
We Jews who support the divestment bill are fed up with Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. We are unwilling to wait for political pressure to get Israel out of the territories to spring from the head of Zeus. And we believe that this move is in the best interests of the Israeli and Palestinian people.
The consequences to Israel of not ending the occupation could not be clearer. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote [in Israeli elections], that will be an apartheid state,” said none other than Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in his address to the Herzliya National Security Conference this past winter.
Israel must choose: End the occupation or face the unraveling of the militarily enforced Jewish-majority state. The selective divestment approach that Berkeley students advocate will help build the political pressure to force Israel to make this choice.
Matthew A. Taylor (http://matthewtaylor.net) is a UC Berkeley Peace and Conflict Studies student, co-founder of PeacePower magazine, and author of “The Road to Nonviolent Coexistence in Palestine/Israel,” a chapter in the book “Nonviolent Coexistence.”