How Not To Argue Against Student Divestment Proposals

Students who support the human and civil rights of Palestinians are submitting proposals on college campuses that call for their universities to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation and administration of Palestinian territories.

As a faculty member, I believe it is inappropriate for me to take a position publicly on a student issue. (Others might reasonably disagree.) But I would like to answer some of the questions that opponents of the proposal often raise. Although there may be good reasons to oppose divestment proposals, you won’t find them in the questions below.

  1. “Why should student government associations single out Israel for divestment when there are worst human rights offenders?”

The answer is simple: there are students at the university whose lives are directly impacted by Israel’s actions in the Palestinian controlled territories. Some of them are of Palestinian descent; others may have relatives on the West Bank and Gaza. Some of them are Israelis who support this symbolic gesture. Then there are roommates, friends, and ordinary people who sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians under occupation.

To suggest that these students should be more concerned with the plight of Syrian refugees or with human rights violations in China than with their own people is dehumanizing and inconsistent; dehumanizing, because it is human to care most about those who are closest to you; inconsistent, because the partisans making this charge clearly are themselves concerned more with defending Israel than with much worse human rights violations.

  1. “Aren’t there two sides to every question? This proposal only presents one!”

It is indeed important for the student legislators to educate themselves about the proposal and to listen carefully to both sides. What they will learn is that although both both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered from violence, only one side has controlled the lands, lives, and resources of the other side for over fifty years. Israelis do not live under Palestinian military occupation; their lands are not expropriated for Palestinian settlement; their freedom of movement is not restricted. Israelis collect their own taxes; are governed by their own elected representatives; are subject to their own civilian justice system.

  1. “Isn’t the situation more complicated than the proposal suggests?”

The situation in the Middle East and in Israel/Palestine is indeed complicated. But there is nothing complicated about denying human rights to an entire people on the grounds of security and the desire to construct settlements on their land. No partisan of Israel can seriously argue that its security requires denying fundamental human rights to Palestinian civilians on a permanent basis.  No country’s security can be defended in that manner.

  1. “Aren’t divestment proposals bad for the peace process?”

Even if the answer to the above is yes – and it has recently been argued by the Crisis Group analyst Nathan Thrall that only external pressure has moved the Israel/Palestinian peace process forward – these proposals are not about states and the political aspirations of people. They are about respecting the human and civil rights of a people under a never-ending occupation. Were Israel to annex the West Bank and Gaza and offer full and equal citizenship to the Palestinians living there, there would be less need for these proposals.

  1. “Instead of calling for divestment, why not call for investment in peace?”

Once again, divestment proposals are not about peace, or the rights of Palestinians and Israelis to states of their own. They are about human rights that must be ensured before there are peace negotiations. Neither side is ready for peace negotiations, which can only be conducted by sides of equal or near equal power.  Calling for the university to invest in peace is admirable; but calling upon it to divest from companies that profit from the occupation is one way that students can express solidarity not only with those students whose families and friends suffer daily, but with all the Israeli and Palestinian people of good will who support the rights of both sides to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Whether university student government associations ultimately decide against or for divestment proposals, this is an educational moment. Universities have academic courses on Israel/Palestine that I recommend students check out. Students and faculty can learn a great deal by listening to each other, and by educating themselves on this critical issue. We are all part of one community.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on November 14, 2017, on The Magnes Zionist, a website featuring commentary by Jewish studies and philosophy professor, Jerry Haber (a nom de plume).  It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Haber.

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