People around the world are mourning the loss of life that resulted from the Israeli Navy commando raid on a flotilla of ships bringing humanitarian aid to a blockaded Gaza. Nine activists were killed. Prosecutors have characterized the incident, which occurred in international waters, as an act of piracy and a violation of international law. And top-ranking Israeli Navy reserves officers denounced the attack and slammed the Israeli government for blaming the activists for what transpired. “We do not accept claims that this was a ‘public relations failure’ and we think that the plan was doomed to failure from the beginning,” the officers wrote in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In many ways, the handling of the flotilla tragedy mirrors Israel’s policy of Occupation of the Palestinian territories: inhumane treatment and a disproportionate use of force against those who have been labeled as terrorists. This is a response born of arrogance and hubris, and a disregard for international public opinion. Add to that the confiscation of news cameras and media censorship, and a propaganda campaign perpetuating the notion of perpetual victimhood– that the Israeli government can do no wrong.
Israel is a prominent nation in the region, but that does not justify apartheid. The nation’s historical origins do not give it a pass in acting ethically or in compliance with human rights law. The Occupation must end if democracy is to flourish in Israel, and public pressure can bring about a just and equitable resolution to the conflict. Some Jews of conscience believe that economic divestment—taking the profit out of violations of human rights and of international law– is the way to make it happen.
The group Jewish Voice for Peace just kicked off a divestment campaign. Their focus is on TIAA-CREF, a Fortune 100 financial services company and insurance giant. The company serves 3.6 million people and manages more than 27,000 retirement plans and over $400 billion in combined assets. TIAA-CREF’s motto is “Financial Services for the Greater Good,” and it proudly calls itself “a global leader in socially responsible investing.” And earlier this year, the company divested from four petrochemical companies that refused to stop doing business with Sudan.
JVP seeks to persuade TIAA-CREF to stop investing in companies that profit from the Occupation, such as Caterpillar and Motorola. The former manufactures bulldozing equipment for destroying Palestinian homes, while the latter supplies cell phones to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) for use in the Occupied Territories.
Occupation means profits. A settlement industry of hundreds of companies has been built around the servicing of 562,000 Israelis living in 135 settlements and outposts in the West Bank, Arab Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. These companies enjoy special government support, including tax breaks, lower environmental and labor standards and low rents. And they exploit Palestinian workers, land and resources as they maintain an infrastructure of buildings, walls and checkpoints to keep Palestinians separated and out of the settlements. Many of the companies serve the Jewish settlers, while others exploit the captive nature of the Palestinian population and charge them exorbitant rates. Meanwhile, Palestinians who work in these industrial zones face labor violations and severe restrictions on their movement and right to organize.
Divestment is a time-tested tool to bring about nonviolent social change. The divestment movement against South African apartheid is perhaps the most poignant example of such a strategy. Similarly, a U.S.-led campaign hopes to bring an end to Israeli-Palestinian apartheid.
Israel considers itself a member of the “First World” and the only democracy in the Mideast, as it maintains a forty-three year military occupation. “To maintain the Occupation, Israel uses harsh and often brutal controls that are widely perceived around the world, if not in the U.S., as an apartheid system. The truth is that even within Israel, only Israeli Jews have enjoyed democratic government and equal rights,” says Barbara Harvey of Jewish Voice for Peace. “Every person who values democratic freedoms and equality has a personal stake in ending Israeli apartheid, because its continuance threatens to redefine democracy in ways that none of us who live outside Israel accept for ourselves.”
Harvey also suggests that Israeli policing practices are having a bad influence in the U.S.: “How many Americans realize that many of our local police forces and even private security forces receive training in Israel, where the Israel Defense Force is taught to dehumanize Palestinians? If the world pretends that Israel’s free society for Jews only is a democracy, the unacceptable will inexorably become acceptable beyond Israel’s borders, threatening every one of us.”
The West Bank consists of a multitude of fragmented enclaves, many of which are connected to adjacent towns only through checkpoints. Settlements, outposts and Israeli military infrastructure place nearly 40 percent of the land out of the reach of Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Gaza is a prison. As Amnesty International has reported, the blockade of Gaza has left nearly 1.5 million men, women and children trapped in a strip of land only 40 km long and 9.5 km wide. The situation in Gaza is one of collective punishment, where poverty, unemployment and food shortages have left four in five people dependent on humanitarian assistance. “Ghetto” is a word associated with pain and deep historical symbolism for both black and Jewish folks. The ghetto is a place where people are packed in and stacked up, by design, and where dreams die and people suffer. Well, Gaza is the ghetto, and one shouldn’t have to live in Gaza or be a Gazan to appreciate that suffering. As one Israeli official stated plainly, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
Further, Arab Israelis are racially profiled, treated as second or third class citizens, and regarded as a fifth column that cannot be trusted. The efforts to strip an Arab Israeli Knesset member of her citizenship because she participated in the humanitarian flotilla (along with Holocaust survivors, European lawmakers and Nobel laureates) is a prime example of the discrimination Arabs face.
So, this is what the divestment campaign wants to change, so that democracy can come to Israel. Business practices must change, but old mindsets must change as well. Jews who are unhappy with the current state of affairs in Israel should be able to, as a courageous progressive rabbi once said, set limits with the ones they love. They should be able to speak up for Palestinian rights without being branded as self-hating Jews, terrorists or enablers of terrorists.
Likewise, non-Jews who come to the table with a love for human rights and a sincere desire to help the situation should not fear accusations of anti-semitism. Displeasure with specific policies of the Israeli government does not equate with hatred towards Judaism or Jewish people. And the rights of Palestinians and Israelis are not mutually exclusive, nor should they be.
This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.