Issue 1 and the Case for Divestment

2 years ago ccwa 0

14710927546_137ac85cbd_oThe recent conversation around divestment at Ohio State has somehow equated “the Israeli occupation of Palestine” with “the nation of Israel” and “the worldwide Jewish community.” If you believe that the three are one and the same, the argument goes, then OSU students have a simple choice to make: either we support the occupation, or we turn our backs on Israel and the Jewish diaspora.

This oversimplification does a huge disservice to Jews both inside and outside of Israel who have opposed the increasingly violent politics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After his election in 2009, Netanyahu declared his support for a two-state solution and his willingness to “make painful compromises” in exchange for peace. But by early 2014, he had decided that no compromises were necessary, and that he would not order the evacuation of any Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In his summary of last year’s Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu made his position even clearer: he did not want bilateral cooperation with Palestine, and hoped instead to completely destroy Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Now, in the lead-up to the Israeli election on March 17th, Netanyahu has rejected the two-state solution and expressed support for expanding Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. The new, conservative Netanyahu is at odds with the majority of American Jewish voters and the US State Department; in Israel, his reelection campaign has sparked massive protests across the country.

The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement does not oppose Israel – rather, it empowers those voices within Israel who want an end to the Palestinian occupation. By divesting from corporations that profit from the occupation, we incentivize those companies to pull out of their equipment deals with the IDF. Many of the equipment transfers are facilitated by the United States government; even one company pulling out of these deals would place an embarrassing spotlight on the $3.1 billion in military aid that the United States provides to Israel each year, and hopefully push the United States government to take a more active role in calling for human rights in Palestine. Ultimately, these incidents are fodder for moderate and progressive groups within Israel and Palestine who are ready to give up on vengeance and work towards a lasting peace.

Critics of divestment at OSU have called the divestment proposal “one-sided propaganda written by an outside national group that spreads its extreme views from campus to campus.” What exactly are these extreme views? The BDS movement urges Israel to:

  1. Cement the Israel-Palestine borders along the lines set in the 1949 Armistice Agreements and tear down the Israeli West Bank Barrier, which physically isolates Palestinians and sets different borders from the 1949 agreement.
  2. Offer the same rights and dignity to Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.
  3. Allow Palestinian refugees to return to their 1949 properties, as stipulated in UN Resolution 194. [source]

1949 partition

None of these conditions sound particularly extreme – in fact, they bear a striking resemblance to Netanyahu’s promises about Palestine a few years ago. If the demands of the BDS Movement aren’t completely ridiculous, then what’s stopping Ohio State students from passing Issue 1?

In the past two weeks, the anti-divestment crowd has gained noticeable traction at Ohio State. The Protect OSU – Vote NO on Issue 1 Facebook page has garnered over 1,300 likes, past student government presidents Taylor Stepp and Micah Kamrass co-authored an article for the Lantern opposing Issue 1, and current USG candidates Abby & Abby have also released a statement against divestment. The arguments from these three groups fall into four general categories, which I address here:

1. “The BDS movement is inherently anti-Semitic and is linked to rising anti-Jewish sentiment throughout the world.”

As stated above, it’s problematic to conflate Israeli government policy with Jews across the world, especially because of the Jewish activists who oppose the occupation. But is the focus on Israel related to the rise of anti-Semitic groups in Europe and the United States? BDS opponents point to the rise of incidents targeting Jews in Europe, and the appearance of a swastika on a UC Davis fraternity after the passage of a BDS measure.

In Europe, the increase  of anti-Jewish sentiments correlates strongly with the rise of right-wing and neo-Nazi political parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece and the National Democratic Party in Germany. These parties have legitimately terrifying goals, and their surging popularity is cause for immense concern. But their ideology is inspired by zealous xenophobia that hates Jews and Muslims alike. In fact, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe tracks closely with the rise in Islamophobia, and springs from similar sources. As for UC Davis, the swastika drawn on a Jewish fraternity was truly despicable, and was roundly condemned by the divestment movement and all Muslim student organizations on campus.

BDS empowers moderates in both Israel and Palestine over their more radical counterparts. Meanwhile, violent strikes in the model of Operation Protective Edge only encourage radical groups within Palestine – isn’t it time for a new strategy?

2. “The six businesses in question are supporting the Palestinian economy and building bridges between Israel and Palestine.”

The Protect OSU campaign has also argued that divestment at Ohio State will hurt the Palestinian economy and further endanger Palestinian human rights. As proof, they link to a Forbes article claiming that Sodastream moving out of the occupied territories will cost Palestinian jobs and hurt the Palestinian economy. But the Forbes article is ultimately a moot point, because it does not apply to the six companies in question. Sodastream operated a factory in the West Bank; none of six companies on the ballot employ Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza.

So why are these companies targeted for divestment? Caterpillar provides the Israeli government with earth-moving equipment to tear down Palestinian homes; HP maintains a biometric ID system that helps the Israeli Defense Forces to monitor Palestinians and arbitrarily allow or deny movement within Israel-Palestine; Boeing, General Dynamics, GE, and United Technologies have all provided the IDF with military equipment that has been used in attacks on Palestinians. Let’s be clear that these corporations are in no way upholding human rights – they are profiting from human rights abuses. Many of these companies have been denounced by international human rights organizations, and two of them have a documented history of fraud in their roles as contractors to the Israeli government.

?????? ?????

3. “Divestment will permanently damage OSU’s relationship with the targeted companies, endangering public-private research partnerships and limiting the job prospects for Ohio State graduates.”

Anti-divestment advocates have pointed out that Ohio State engages in a number of research partnerships with the targeted corporations, notably Boeing and GE, and that cutting all ties to these corporations could hurt the university. Abby and Abby mention that GE is the second-largest employer of Ohio State graduates, Caterpillar contributes $1 million to student scholarships, and United Technologies partners with Ohio State on cutting-edge research projects. Other commentators have speculated about the difficulties OSU would face hiring contractors who didn’t use Caterpillar machines, and how the James Cancer Hospital would function without GE equipment.

These concerns reveal an ignorance both about Issue 1 and the companies involved. Fortunately for the James Cancer Hospital and OSU’s renovation plans, Issue 1 only relates to the Ohio State Endowments, a collection of university investments with a total value of $2.1 billion. For the time being, the research partnerships, equipment contracts, and academic relationships with these corporations will be entirely preserved.

Will divestment lead these corporations to retaliate by withdrawing from public-private partnerships and not hiring OSU graduates? Probably not. These companies are not investing in Ohio State out of the kindness of their heart: privately-funded research partnerships have shaped the nature of research at universities in a way that is enormously profitable for the companies involved. Ohio State, like all large public universities, is coming up with technologies that have huge commercial potential. One look at Ohio State’s Corporate Relations landing page makes this obvious: OSU is offering potential investors a value proposition, not a charity case.

What about the scholarships and employment opportunities that these companies provide to Ohio State? Again, it’s unlikely that divestment will seriously impact existing investments and hiring practices. Much like their research partnerships, scholarship and hiring programs at OSU benefit companies by developing and then recruiting top talent into the workforce. Ignoring the most qualified candidates because of their school’s political affiliation is terrible hiring practice – it’s also illegal in several states. It’s equally short-sighted to think that these companies will pull all their investments out of Ohio if OSU divests.

All these arguments aside, it’s concerning how quickly critics appeal to employment at the expense of human rights. Is corporate influence really going to stop Ohio State students from doing the right thing?

4. “Why focus on just these companies and their relationship to Israel? If the divestment crowd truly cared about human rights, wouldn’t they focus on other pressing issues as well?”

This is an excellent point. In fact, many BDS supporters have signed a petition calling for Saudi Arabia to release pro-democracy blogger Raif Badawi and will gladly support any Ohio State initiative that calls for justice around the world, or holds corporations accountable for human rights abuses. But those other issues aren’t on the ballot this week.

There are plenty of historical reasons why divestment is happening now, including the political situation in Israel, America’s massive military aid program to the IDF, and momentum that has been generated by the likes of Alice Walker and Desmond Tutu over the past several years. I applaud Ohio State students who are tackling other problems around the world, and I can’t wait to back other causes as they reach maturity. But for just this week, the focus is on divestment: it’s a debate whose time has come.

This week, I stand with my fellow Ohio State students, as well as other schools, religious institutions, unions, academic organizations, governments, and thousands of Jews inside and outside of Israel in supporting divestment. A vote for Issue 1 is not a vote against Israel. It is a vote for humanity.

Update: As a result of a judiciary review on Sunday, Issue 1 has been removed from the ballot this year. Sign a petition here to appeal this decision. 

Edit: Pursuant to complaints lodged by JStreetU, the original splash photo, which portrayed anti-Netanyahu protests, has been removed. Please note that all photos posted by The Algerian have been selected for their thematic relevance and are not meant to reflect on the individuals or organizations portrayed. 

________________________________________________________

by Nathaniel Henry

(photo credits: fotomovimiento.org, akispa.de, activestills.org)