Somerville Divestment Revisited – Apartheid

Over the course of August, I’m republishing a series of posts from a now-defunct site that covered the first major municipal divestment fight that took place in Somerville MA between 2004-2006.  A description of how that issue played out can be found here and I hope these essays will continue to be useful for those battling against the BDS propaganda arm of the anti-Israel war movement (as well as demonstrating how divestment was and can continue to be soundly defeated by people of good will ready to take up the fight).  

One suspects that if the word “apartheid” were eliminated from the vocabulary of Israel’s critics, they would be rendered nearly speechless.

The history of linkage between the Arab-Israel conflict and the struggle against Apartheid is an excellent illustration of the level of hypocrisy Israel’s friends must tolerate from its foes.

The “apartheid” slur began in the 1970s when the movement against racial discrimination in South Africa began at the same time the oil boom gave Israel’s Arab foes the resources to link their struggle against the Jewish state with battle for human rights in South Africa.  Those same resources allowed Israel’s Arab critics to buy themselves a “Get Out of Jail Free” card with regard to any serious scrutiny of their own human rights abuses.

The Zionism = Apartheid mantra fixed on Israel’s treatment of its Arab minority, while avoiding the obvious fact that those who shouted “racism” the loudest were the rulers of some of the most racist states in existence, Middle East regimes whose treatment of minorities (from the expulsion of Jews, to the persecution of religious groups, to the enslavement of Black Africans) made even the crimes of South African apartheid pale in comparison.  (Saudi Arabia has the distinction of having only legally banned human slavery in 1962, a practice that still continues today in the Arab League member state of Sudan.)

A second charge had to do with Israel’s trade ties with Apartheid leaders in Pretoria, trade that while real, paled in comparison to South Africa’s senior trading partners in Europe, the US, Japan and the Arab Middle East.

Carefully avoided during the anti-Israel/anti-Apartheid rallies of the 1980s was the never-discussed fact that while South Africa had no oil of its own, it managed to run an industrial, oil-based, first-world economy.  Simultaneously, the oil-rich Middle East somehow managed to fill its vaults and shopping malls with ton after ton of South African gold.  This particular alchemy points to one and only one conclusion: the Arab oil trade with South Africa, while carried on secretly, helped keep the machinery of Apartheid fueled for decades.

The half-tracks that swept soldiers through the streets of Sharpsville ran on oil, as did the generators that powered Nelson Mandela’s prison.  And yet even now that Apartheid has been left in the ash heap of history, even as South Africa itself has undergone the truth and reconciliation process, even as the US and Europe have re-evaluated their historical mistake of “constructive engagement” with the Apartheid regime, the Arab oil-for-gold trade with Apartheid continues to be beyond the bounds of discussion, especially by those most eager to brand Israel an “Apartheid” state.

The language of the world-wide Israel boycott movement, including it’s Somerville branch, is the inheritor of the investments Israel’s Arab foes made over the decades to brand Israel a racist society, while ignoring both the rampant bigotry within their own borders, and the robust, hidden and hypocritical oil-for-gold trade with Apartheid.  One would hope that this history would cause the Zionism = Apartheid crowd a small bit of reflection before continuing a tradition started by those who provided Apartheid the fuel it needed to continue year after year after year.

Sadly, reflection is not the strong suit of Israel’s critics whose self-righteous fury allows anything to be justified, no matter how unfair, hypocritical or false, in their single-minded quest that Israel must go.

Statements

Last week, I talked about what a genuine BDS victory might look like, and how we would know when it had come about.

This has become an important issue since, in most instances when the BDSers sent out a press release announcing their most recent “triumph” (certainly any one that involved boycott or divestment decisions with a financial impact climbing above three figures), these announcements tended to be maddeningly ambiguous (read MSCI and the Quakers) or outright frauds (read Blackrock and HampshireCollege).

Fortunately, there is precedent for what a genuine divestment victory looks like.  For instance, if you think back to the actual Anti-Apartheid movement from the 1980s (the one the boycotters insist we accept them as a successor to), when colleges and universities, churches and even state governments pulled the plug on their South African investments, this involved:

1. Selling off thousands or even millions of dollars worth of equities – sometimes at a loss – in order to take a moral stand; and

2. Accompanying that moral stand with a clear, unambiguous statement from the leader or leaders of the institution doing the divesting which made it crystal clear what they were doing and why

To cite one example, in 1986 the state of New Jersey (following the lead of other states) pulled $4.3 billion of their pension fund out of companies that maintained ties with Apartheid South Africa (that’s billion with a “B”).   And this decision was accompanied by a proud and public statement by then Governor of New Jersey Thomas Kean, in which he said: ”We will not countenance the brutality that is apartheid by nourishing it with our investments.”

Notice the total lack of need to have anyone interpret the political and financial decision of the State of New Jersey in this instance of genuine divestment.  No single-issue partisan hacks were required to “explain” to us how we should interpret New Jersey’s action.  And no spin doctors had to be on hand to read us the tea leaves regarding why the institution (in this case, the state) was doing what it was doing.

For when genuine, political divestment takes place, it is accompanied by a clear moral pronouncement by those actually doing the divesting which leaves no ambiguity whatsoever.  In fact, since the type of divestment we’re talking about (selling stock for political vs. financial reasons) is a political act, the lack of an unambiguous announcement means such a political divestment act has not taken place.

You don’t even need to go back two-and-a-half decades to see what I’m talking about.  For during the BDS era, there have been other divestment projects (notably ones targeting Sudan and Iran) that have been wildly successful, even as anti-Israel BDSers ricocheted between defeat and fiasco.

To again cite just one example, when in 2007 the University of Massachusetts pulled the plug on Sudan-related investment (in this case to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars), the head of the school’s Investment Committee stated “We are taking this action because we believe that it is the right thing to do.” And the school’s President celebrated the decision as “consistent with the University’s traditions and values.”

Contrast this to BDS hoax at Hampshire College in 2009 when the boycotters were firing off one press release after another claiming that Hampshire had become the first US college in the country to divest from “Apartheid Israel,” even as the President of the college and Chair of its Board of Trustees were announcing that “No other college or university should use Hampshire as a precedent for divesting from Israel, since Hampshire has refused to divest from Israel. Anyone who claims otherwise is deliberately misrepresenting Hampshire’s decision and has no right to speak for the college.”

And this is just one example of statements just as clear as those made in the New Jersey or UMass cases noted above, except that this time they unambiguously state that the school has done nothing like what is being claimed by the BDSers.

Keep these quotes and dollar figures in mind the next time the forces of boycott and divestment insist that votes taken by a student council somewhere (often taken in the dead of night behind the backs of students, which are immediately condemned or ignored by financial decision makers) mean victory is within their grasp.

And keep it especially in mind when you are confronted by a BDS press release filled with unattributed quotes and ambiguous wording regarding what someone else was supposed to have done.  And if said press release lacks a statement as clear as what we’ve seen with every genuine boycott or divestment victory in history, you can safely assume that this “win” exists only in the BDSers own heated fantasies.

Speaking of Apartheid

Given that the organizers of this week’s so-called “Israel Apartheid Week” (actually two weeks – they can’t even tell the truth when saying the word “week”) has dedicated itself to my obsession, BDS, I thought I’d cross-post something from my pal Sol’s site here. So, without further ado…

Speaking of Apartheid

Students who will be exposed this week to the so-called “Israel Apartheid Week” need to understand that the entire framework behind the Israel-Apartheid accusation is based on a cover up.

During the 1980s when the Apartheid government of South Africa needed 15 million tons of oil to fuel its military and its economy of repression, virtually all of that oil was imported to Apartheid South Africa from the Middle East. South Africa paid a premium – in gold mined by black slave labor – for that oil, the lifeblood of their racist regime. As the Kenya Daily Nation said at the time “Arabs are buying South African gold like hotcakes, thus helping to sustain that country’s abominable policy of Apartheid.”

It was during this period that the accusation that Israel was an “Apartheid State” was born, an accusation designed to throw the unknowing off the track as to who was truly oiling the wheels of Apartheid.

Flash forward to today when organizations like Hamas regularly incite genocidal hatred, yet simultaneously accuse Israelis of doing what they openly advocate (at least in Arabic). For these organizations, the legal segregation of Jews from the rest of the world (their own version of global Apartheid best exemplified by their so-called “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” or BDS program) is of less interest than outright extermination.

Those who join in the activities surrounding Israel-Apartheid Week in the name of devotion to human rights seem to have adopted intentional or unintentional ignorance regarding who really practices Apartheid in the Middle East today. Repression of women (or gender Apartheid) is enshrined in national and even religious law in one Arab country after another. Brutality against homosexuals (or sexual Apartheid) has been behind legalized murder of scores of gays and lesbians across the Muslim world. The repression of religious minorities (or religious Apartheid) is considered legal (even sacred) by those who accuse Israel of repression and racism. And speaking of racism, the practice of slavery directed against Black Africans still finds a home in the 21th century in Sudan, a nation which is a proud member of and protected by the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

And so the cover up of who truly supports and practices Apartheid continues behind an incessant propaganda campaign directed against the only country in the Middle East that has free speech, free elections, an independent judiciary, human rights for women and homosexuals, and the most varied population of racial and ethnic types in the world: Israel.

Unless and until those behind this month’s Israel Apartheid Week’s activities take the time to explain these contradictions, students are free to assume that everything taking place on campus this week and next are simply exercises in low-rent propaganda based on Apartheid Week advocates’ assumption that students are nothing more than a bunch of ignorant suckers.

Note to Apartheid Week’s organizers: We’re not!

What are the goals of divest-from-Israel campaigns?

FAQ #3: What are the goals of divest-from-Israel campaigns?

Because divestment activists represent such a small minority of student opinion (and an even tinier minority of US public opinion overall), their goal is to attach their message (that Israel is an “Apartheid state” worth of economic punishment) to a well known institutions such as a university, church or city. This allows them to “punch above their weight” by declaring their anti-Israel message is not simply emanating from a small, non-representative minority, but rather represents the policy of a respected organization.

Another goal is to infuse college campuses with their Israel=Apartheid messaging, attempting to make this slander stick, even if divestment motions themselves get defeated (as they have been, time and time again).

“Academic Terrorism”

In appreciate for the response I’ve been getting to this subject, both online and off, I’m making it a habit to answer any question posed to me in the comments section. And the most recent entry (Thuggery) threw the question I asked at the end (“What are we going to about it?”) right back at me, to which I have an answer (sort of): First off (and with apologies to Bill Clinton), it depends what we mean by “it”.

If by “it” we mean how are we going to stop the alleged Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) “movement” from hurting the State of Israel economically, there is actually not much to worry about in that regard. True, it’s no fun being treated like the Jewish state deserves economic sanction, but point of fact the Jewish State (like the American one) faces much more economic peril from its own statist folly, private-sector excess and corrupt bureaucracy (both public and private) than it does from a bunch of college students playing radical by trying (unsuccessfully) to get places like Hampshire College to switch from one mutual fund to another.

If the “it” we fear is that BDS becomes a springboard through which general acceptance of Israel as the next South Africa will become accepted wisdom (on college campuses and elsewhere), this is a more realistic threat. That said, it must take into account the fact that the “Apartheid Israel” slur has been used on-and-off since the mid-1970s (it was the hook upon which the UN’s notorious Zionism = Racism calumny was hung), yet during this same period support for Israel among the general public has skyrocketed (in direct proportion to general support for Israel’s foes plummeting).

One can make the case that the accelerated use of this slur coupled with more and more aggressive tactics on the part of Israel’s foes make the problem more acute (and brings up the specter of a generation of college kids being trained to believe this lie). But we should also be cognizant of research that shows aggressive language or theatrics (mock “walls” and checkpoints come to mind) tends to turn off the vast bulk of students who do not have a stake in the Arab-Israeli dispute. In truth, our own aggressive attacks and counter-attacks also have the effect of turning the attitude of the uncommitted to one that says “a pox on both your houses” (indifference which, while frustrating, is better than seeing them swayed in the wrong direction).

There is a threat (my original “it”) closer to the surface that needs to be dealt with immediately, and that is the possibility that campuses across the country (including in the New England area) will get infected with the virus afflicting isolated schools in Europe, Canada and certain places in the US (notably on the West Coast). This illness is one in which discourse on campus has become so poisoned that Israel haters feel they have carte blanch to use any tactics (“by any means necessary”) to maximize the volume of their message while drowning out all other voices in a sea of shouts and other forms of harassment.

We’ve only seen this in a big way recently at U Mass where those who spent week after week running Israel=Apartheid programming (with minimal protest from the organized or disorganized Jewish community) went into a frenzy once our side had its say in the form of a series of talks (one by Israeli Daniel Taub, one by Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz). The mere thought of the other side being able to get a word in edgewise made it appropriate (in their minds) to ask members of the permanent Israel-hating workforce to leave their parents basements, show up at U Mass and make sure any statement by “the other side” be greeted with wild jeers and shouts of “Free Palestine.” It is this threat to freedom of speech and civil discourse that must be nipped in the bud now.

Fortunately, we have one arrow in our quiver we have not yet made full use of and that is the excesses of the BDSers themselves. While people shouting at each other tends to convince the uncommitted that a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is far away, it is clear that most students understand who is responsible when the rules of civil discourse are being shredded.

The student organizer who moderated the Dershowitz event said it best when he celebrates controversial issues being discussed on campus, while loathing the shouting down of opponents as a form of “academic terrorism.” This behavior must not be ignored or swept under the carpet. Rather, it should be hung around the necks of those who pretend to be addressing Middle East issues from the moral high ground, but who demonstrate time and time again they couldn’t care less about human rights, free speech or academic freedom, unless those lofty goals can be perverted and misused for their own narrow political gain.

The mask fell off the Israel=Apartheid crowd at last month’s U Mass gig, and it’s our responsibility to make sure anyone else dealing with this issue on any campus gets to see their true (and ugly) face.