Case for divesting from Israeli interests

From the archive (legacy material)

Mohammed Abed | The Badger Herald | 30 September 2005

UW System Investment Policy 78-1 states that all investments “made in any company, corporation, subsidiary or affiliate which practices or condones through its actions discrimination on the basis of race religion, color, creed or sex … shall be divested in as prudent but rapid a manner as possible.”
It was on the basis of 78-1 that the UW System divested from apartheid-era South Africa, a state that practiced systematic discrimination on the basis of race.
Similarly, Israel applies a wide range of harmful policies to its non-Jewish inhabitants without any good reason for doing so. The standard objection to this is that Israel does have good reasons for discriminating against non-Jews in Palestine since it is only non-Jews who engage in terrorism. What this objection fails to account for is the obvious fact that, whereas it is only a tiny minority of Palestinians who engage in suicide bombing of civilians, Israel’s discriminatory policies apply to all Palestinians. The objection also fails to recognize that the vast bulk of Israel’s policies have little to do with security, and are often implemented using systematic state terrorism against Palestinian civilians.
For example, Israel’s immigration policy consists of a set of racist practices reminiscent of the “White Australia Policy” that was phased out by the mid-1970s. The aim of this was to increase the proportion of whites in the Australian population by using a variety of methods to encourage immigration, including expedited citizenship and settlement subsidies. Non-whites were excluded from these benefits, just as Israel’s “law of return” asserts that any person of Jewish descent can immediately gain citizenship and settle on lands expropriated from Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed from their homeland in 1948 and are prevented from realizing their basic human right of return to this very day. The return of refugees to the homes they were displaced from is rightly accepted as a basic and uncontroversial moral imperative in almost every case that doesn’t involve the Palestinians.
Israel’s immigration policy is but one example of its discriminatory practices. People would rightly complain of racism in any other context in which a state defines 93 percent of its land area as “state lands” and then proceeds to make those lands and the resources they afford available to the members of one ethnic group rather than to the citizens of the state. Although they constitute 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry, Palestinian Arabs cannot buy, lease, or work in these areas. Meanwhile, the State utilizes a broad range of bureaucratic and violent measures to expropriate the lands that remain in the hands of its Palestinian population. The result is that Israel’s Palestinian population lives on the equivalent of the territorially disconnected “homelands” that blacks lived on during apartheid in South Africa.
Unless someone can show that Israel does not engage in racist practices of this sort (there are many other examples one could cite), then divestment from any company that does business with or in Israel is justified on the basis of Regent Policy 78-1. Through their involvement with Israel, corporations are both condoning and providing economic and material support to a state that discriminates on the basis of ethnic origin, and should therefore “be divested in as prudent but rapid a manner as possible.”
An oft-cited argument for the refusal to divest is that divestment is a last resort and there are currently other means available to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In recent days, we have been told that by removing its colonists and army from six percent of the territory under its control, Israel has made a historical concession on the road to peace. The idea here is that if we give Israel a chance, it will voluntarily end the human rights violations that justified divestment in the first place. This argument is faulty for many reasons, the most important of which is that it is contradicted by events on the ground in historical Palestine.
Israel still controls Gaza’s borders, airspace, and territorial waters. That it has full control of the area was amply demonstrated recently when its air force bombed a number of densely populated civilian areas for the sake of extra-judicially assassinating Hamas and Islamic Jihad members. In the West Bank, Israeli forces rounded up 269 Palestinian civilians, including nominees for the third round of Palestinian municipal elections, scheduled for Sept. 29, 2005. The wall that was ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice continues to be built deep inside West Bank territory using bulldozers and other equipment supplied by the Caterpillar Corporation — a company in which UW is invested.
The Israeli government has already established a police station and plans to build more “Jewish-only” colonies in an area called “E1” that lies between East Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. When the expansion is complete, the West Bank — the supposed territory of the ever-elusive Palestinian state — will be cut in half and East Jerusalem will be totally isolated from other Palestinian communities. House demolitions and other atrocious policies continue unchecked. Earlier this month The Guardian reported that a group of Israeli soldiers calling itself “Breaking the Silence” has publicly testified they were ordered to shoot Palestinian civilians, including children, for no reason.
This is the reality of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, and a state that acts in this way needs to be pressured into change. As long as the U.S. government continues along its current path of unconditional political and economic support for policies of this sort, and as long as other nation-states and transnational institutions like the U.N. acquiesce to this state of affairs, it becomes the responsibility of international civil society to use whatever non-violent means it has at its disposal to realize a just peace in Palestine. Divestment and boycott are perhaps the most effective means available to institutions like UW, and their use is justified not only by UW’s own code of socially responsible investment but also by the idea that UW should be an agent of positive social change in the U.S. and around the world.
Mohammed Abed ( is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.