“If I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa.” _ Archbishop Desmond Tutu, December 1989.
Faculty and students at Tufts, like those at Harvard, MIT, and many other schools across the country, have signed a petition (see www.israel-divest.org) calling for divestiture from Israeli companies and companies selling arms to Israel. Why did we start such a thing? What do we hope to accomplish? Why are we singling out Israel? Are we just anti-Semites?
Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is in many ways analogous to apartheid South Africa’s treatment of blacks. In the days of apartheid, faculty and students called for universities to divest, and Tufts was one of those that did. The pressure exerted by the divestiture movement has generally been credited with an important role in bringing the apartheid system to an end. We hope that our movement will yield a similar improvement in the Middle East. But more important than any possible economic effect of divestiture, at least to me, is to call attention to the similarities between Israel and apartheid South Africa, and so bring the weight of American popular opinion to bear on the government of Israel.
South Africa was a country in which a minority of white immigrants exercised control over a majority of indigenous black people. Blacks were not citizens of South Africa but rather of many disconnected “homelands”. They had no vote in the government of South Africa, which imposed draconian rules on their lives. They were denied access to the best land, and were forbidden from traveling without a “pass”, even from one “homeland” to another. Black people organized into groups such as the African National Congress, but the South African government refused to negotiate with them. When the groups turned to violence, the South African government used the violence to justify the oppression. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and told that to be released he would have to renounce violence. Much of the violence, however, was committed against black people by the apartheid government.
The situation in the occupied territories today is very similar. A minority of Jewish settlers lives in the territories with a majority of Palestinian people. Israel controls the daily lives of the Palestinians, who, unlike the settlers, cannot vote in Israeli elections. Settlers seize the best land, and Israel builds roads for Jews only and divides Palestinian lands into many pieces. Palestinians cannot travel without passes. Their lives are restricted by curfews. Palestinians have organized, but Israel will not negotiate with their representatives. They have turned to violence, and Sharon uses the violence to justify the oppression. Yasser Arafat is often imprisoned in his compound by Israeli tanks and told that he must renounce violence on behalf of the Palestinian people. Much of the violence, however, is committed against Palestinian civilians by the Israeli government. Prominent Israeli politicians call for a “separation” between settlers and Palestinians to reduce violence. The Afrikaans word for “separation” is “apartheid.”
But why single out Israel? Surely the situation in Sudan, for example, is much worse than that in Israel and Palestine. But for one thing, the fact that there is another, worse, situation, doesn’t mean that the Palestinian situation is not terrible and in need of attention. Secondly, although the United States not solving the problems of the Sudan, at least it is not causing them. But Israel is the largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States, and most of that consists of weapons. The United States is often Israel’s only defender at the United Nations. In a very real sense, the United States is enabling Israel to oppress the Palestinians, and therefore people in the United States have a special obligation to put a stop to it.
But my main reason to concentrate on Israel is a personal one. I was raised as a Jew. At Passover we said “And the stranger shall you not oppress, for you know the heart of the stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I believed that Jews would always stand up for oppressed people and would never themselves be oppressors. So now that Jews have become oppressors, and, worse, have done it in the name of Judaism, I feel especially compelled to speak out.
Harvard President Lawrence Summers said that the divestiture movement was anti-Semitic. Calling us anti-Semitic says, in essence, that our views are just prejudice against Jews, and therefore not worthy of any substantive reply. Of course he’s free to disagree with us, but he should address the issues we raise, not merely dismiss us.
The charge of anti-Semitism is also not true. I am not anti-Semitic nor am I anti-Israeli. I support the right of the State of Israel to exist and the right of Israelis to live in peace. But the actions of Ariel Sharon’s government are not helping the people of Israel. Instead, whenever there’s a period of relative calm in Israel, Sharon initiates some new military move against Palestinians, which is answered by more violence, which he can use as a pretext not to negotiate.
The pro-Jewish, pro-Israeli position is to stop Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and work instead for a negotiated peace.
Ken Olum is a research assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.