Stanford Progressive

Opinion: Selectively Divest From the Palestinian Occupation

By Itai Farhi, published March, 2012


The Stanford campus has recently mobilized around the topic of “eviction”: Chi Theta Chi’s, of course. With a petition currently standing at 2,056 signatures [at the time of publication], this community action should show us what can happen when students care. Although the sudden revocation of the lease for a Stanford house is surely a cause for alarm, it seems painfully banal to remind ourselves that it is “evictions” like these, albeit with more violence and less notice, that are a constant reality for all who are subject to home demolitions in the Occupied Territories of Palestine.

As in so many cases of systematic oppression, no one is neutral in this conflict. Refusing to engage means, at best, uncritically arming the Israeli occupation with our tuition dollars, and indirectly ensuring that Middle East conflict will continue to stagnate.

As students, the kinds of change we can effect are indirect. Stanford’s endowment is valued in the top five among universities, and any decision to follow SPER’s call to divest would raise the symbolic and economic costs of occupation for Israel.

I approach this issue as a Jew, and as a citizen and supporter of Israel. I feel it is my obligation to defend Israel the best I can, and I see no better way than honestly recognizing its faults and urging it to improve. By continuing to engage in rights-violating practices, Israel is distancing itself from the international community and failing to solve its real problems – chief among them the so-called “demographic threat.”

It is clear that Israel cannot continue indefinitely on its current track of allowing illegal settlements and legislating ethnic and religious discrimination. However one slices the demographic data, Israel cannot count on Jews remaining a majority in the coming years. As Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, put it: “Israel, the Jewish State, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent. Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state.”

Divestment from the U.S. ally may be ‘tough love,’ but being a friend to Israel entails not accepting its behavior as given. Any student of history knows that disenfranchising a population from a minority position is not a strategy that can survive the long term.

Today, anyone seeking a better future for Palestinians will likely hear, “Why focus on Israel? Aren’t there other nations, even in the region, that violate rights?” This response is undeniably true, but it misses the point.

The Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq expresses the near-consensus position that no end to the Middle Eastern conflicts can be imagined without resolving the situation in Israel. As the report states, “The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Among other consequences, the centrality of Israel has meant that many regional regimes have been able to redirect attention away from their own repressive practices toward the conflict.

Moreover, Israel is itself singled out by American policy. Consider that the United States gives approximately a third of its aid, more than the combined total of aid to Latin America and Africa, to a country with under one thousandth of the world’s population and a relatively high GDP per capita.

Asking the University not to throw its substantial financial and symbolic weight behind companies that directly support human rights abuses, SPER’s petition urges divestment only from companies that engage in four criteria of practices in the occupied territories: (1) facilitation of acts of collective punishment (home demolition, land confiscation, and military action against civilians), (2) operation within occupier-only settlements, (3) maintenance of a “separation barrier” and (4) institutional discrimination against any people of a certain race, ethnicity or religion.

These criteria are universal in scope and can be applied to other conflicts as foundational principles of ethical investing. This approach does not come down on any side of the issue; calling for a principled divestment from rights-abusers is no more pro-Palestinian than refusing to deal with unethical diamond companies is pro-Congolese. Supporting divestment commits its supporters to no “side” except the right side of history.

As students, we can act when we sense injustice. The call for divestment is not “radical”; this form of grassroots, non-violent action has extensive precedents both on this campus and on others like it. Stanford’s own Statement on Investment Responsibility pledges to divest from any companies that “cause substantial social injury.” Students for Palestinian Equal Rights’ petition demands only that Stanford commit in practice to the values it claims to uphold.

The writer is a member of Students for Palestinian Equal Rights (SPER).


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