The vampire's kiss:
Divestment and Boycott - A Progress Report:
How is the Economic and Political War Against Israel Going?
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Legend (or at least Bram Stoker) posits that a vampire can only enter someone's home if he or she is invited across the threshold. There could be no metaphor more apt for the divest-from-Israel campaigns that have proliferated among schools, unions, cities and churches in the
"BDS" (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) as a tactic for anti-Israel activity and propaganda galvanized during the notorious UN World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001 - just weeks before the 9/11 attacks. It reached a peak in 2004. But for all the energies expended by its advocates, all the headlines it has attracted for several years, and all the concern it has raised in
A recent statement by the former president of the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine that the recent war in
While economic warfare has been a staple of Arab-Israeli conflict since the Arab boycott of the 1920s, divestment, the latest incarnation of the money weapon, began to appear on US media radars in 2002 with a petition circulating at Harvard and MIT universities calling for both schools to "divest from Israel, and from US companies that sell arms to Israel" until various conditions were met. By the end of 2002, only 182 students, 94 staff members and 205 alumni had signed the document, yet the call for divestment emanating from members of two of
With university divestment petitions raising awareness of this new tool for activists,
By 2004, divestment calls seemed to be coming from all directions: cities and towns, unions, political parties, and civic organizations representing groups as diverse as British architects (Architects and Planners for Justice in
This common language included a nearly identical set of targeted companies, the most prominent being equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, chosen not just because of the involvement of Caterpillar equipment in the death/martyrdom of International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist Rachel Corrie, but also because the widespread holding of Caterpillar shares by prominent institutions effectively allowed divestment into the door of nearly any organization.
A Movement or a Tactic?
In many ways, divestment represents not so much a political "movement" or alignment, but rather a new tactic embraced by organizations already committed to propaganda on behalf of
Even those pushing divestment most vigorously understood that the short-term financial impact of divestiture on the robust Israeli economy would be minimal. But, as described again and again in university, church and other campaign communications, divestment advocates were taking a long-range view, hoping to create over time an automatic linkage in the mind of the public between
The organizations behind manyearlier divestment drives, including the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the Palestinian Solidarity Movement (PSM), and The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, while not unknown, are certainly less prestigious than the institutions on the front lines of this decade's divestment campaigns such as Harvard or the Presbyterian Church. This points to another cornerstone of the divestment strategy: the leveraging of institutional reputation.
The use of large, respected organizations to help small groups punch above their political weight is nothing new. Church leaders, for example, are routinely lobbied to take stands on contemporary political issues from local matters (such as crime and youth violence) to international conflicts (such as the genocide in
While petition drives at various universities first brought divestment into
School leaders are often credited with derailing school divestment efforts, but the fact is that sentiment in favor of divestment never ran particularly high among students, faculty and alumni on any campus. For example, the original Harvard-MIT divestment petition was met with an anti-divestiture counter petition with 10 times as many signatories.
If American universities proved barren ground for actual divestiture (rather than media-amplified noise), academic activists did manage to chalk up an overseas victory, albeit a temporary one, with the British-based union, the Association of University Teachers (AUT).
Few outside British academic circles had ever heard of the AUT until last year, when it voted to boycott two Israeli universities on a series of what could generously be described as trumped-up charges.
As a UK-based union of university instructors and professionals, the AUT also had a "social justice" constituency that was hijacked by a group of anti-Israel activists who, through relentless maneuvering of the AUT's Byzantine governing bureaucracy, managed to pass a resolution calling for British academics to break all ties with Bar-Ilan and
World reaction to the move was swift. Jewish groups scorned the decision while anti-Israel activists hailed it as their first academic "victory." More important, academics worldwide condemned the AUT's assault on intellectual freedom, and AUT members (most of whom only discovered the action their leadership had taken after decisions were made) revolted against the usurpation of their name, overturning the policy in an overwhelming vote.
Earlier this year, another British union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), passed a motion calling on individual academics to personally boycott Israeli colleagues who did not openly condemn the Israeli government. Like the AUT decision a year earlier, the NATFHE motion was taken at the behest of a small group of union activist leaders, only this time the vote was held just hours before the union dissolved itself to merge with the aforementioned AUT (which had rejected a similar boycott a few months earlier). If the original AUT vote could be considered a tragedy, the NATFHE decision (from the furtive attempt to hijack the union minutes before it disappeared to the McCarthyite call for British lecturers to impose loyalty oaths on their Israeli colleagues) most resembled farce, a much greater embarrassment to British, than Israeli, academia.
Calls for divestment have floated around the fringes of municipal politics in cities such as
In many ways
Due to the cosmopolitan nature of the region and the availability of large amounts of student activist "labor,"
Divestment was spearheaded by a group named the Somerville Divestment Project (SDP). Claiming to be a local, grassroots organization that had mobilized in reaction to the city's municipal investment choices, members of the organization included familiar names from Boston, Cambridge and area suburbs who had been involved with various anti-Israel campaigns (including petition drives, film and lecture series, and consulate and Israel Independence Day protests) for decades.
Meeting behind closed doors with Somerville's aldermen (the city's 11-person legislature, a group with a history of taking stands on national and international issues beyond their purview such as Burma, Sudan and the USA Patriot Act) for over a year, the SDP managed to convince the majority of legislators that the Arab-Israeli crisis neatly fit the Burma/Sudan template as an international human rights crisis with a simple storyline and clear villains and victims. Information that might have laid blame on the crisis taking place in the region (including the deaths of over 1,000 Israelis from terror bombing) on anyone other than
In late October of 2004, the Board of Aldermen was about to vote in favor of a non-binding resolution recommending that the independent retirement board divest holdings (including stocks and Israel Bonds) that the SDP had identified as representing "investment" in the Israeli side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was only when two legislators insisted that the final vote be deferred until public hearings were held that the citizens of
The ensuing controversy, covered by worldwide media, brought Boston's Israel Consul General into hearings that proved to be the most raucous in the city's history, with area activists on both sides of the issue flooding city hall in a series of meetings between early November and early December of 2004. While opposition never had the chance to fully organize, the scope of the controversy easily convinced the city's aldermen that the storyline the SDP had been feeding them for months was an inaccurate oversimplification designed to minimize the hugely controversial nature of what they were being asked to do. Once the complexity of the
Divestment raised its head again in
The loss of experienced political operatives led to a series of blunders, notably a refusal to follow the rules set forth by the city on the nature and timing of legal petitioning activity. Despite attempts to sue the city, divestment never made it onto the 2005 ballot. Although it is unknown what would have happened had the issue reached voters, phone-banking efforts by divestment opponents during the summer of '05 found sentiment running a familiar 10 to one against divestiture.
Divestment proponents are currently attempting to make use of more lenient district requirements to get two anti-Israel measures onto a local ballot in November 2006. Yet the further their efforts are separated from the government endorsement they nearly received in 2004, the more the significance of their activity fades to resemble the petition-driven anti-Israel activism that has been background noise in the
By far, the US Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) had been the jewel in the crown of the divestment movement. Like divestment votes in the AUT and Somerville, the church's divestment decisions were made by a small group that acted with minimal input from members. Unlike these other institutions, however, this small group was not a radical fringe, but rather included members from the church's top leadership.
In contrast to more hierarchical religious institutions, the Presbyterians have a representational structure operating at the level of Presbyteries consisting of one or more churches organized geographically. Ostensibly, decisions on church policy emanate from the Presbytery-level "grass roots" that submit resolutions, called "Overtures." These are voted on by representatives of all Presbyteries at a General Assembly held every two years.
The church currently faces a pair of linked institutional crises: a dwindling membership (which has fallen by almost half in the last four decades) paired with growing centralization of power within a church bureaucracy that has assumed quasi-executive authority. Church management of several billion dollars in assets (including property and huge investment and retirement funds) created the need for a large, full-time, paid professional church staff, located in
This bureaucracy's hostility to the Jewish state has been manifest for close to two decades, and has included several pronouncements that effectively lay blame for all problems in the Middle East at
Divestment was one of many Overtures handled in the last hours of the PCUSA's 2004 General Assembly. Part of a string of resolutions that, among other things, condemned
The church's hostility to the Jewish state led to a spate of negative publicity. Press coverage became particularly embarrassing after Al-Manar, Hizbullah's satellite television network, revealed that Presbyterian groups, including representatives from the national denomination's powerful Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), had met with the Lebanese terrorist organization on several occasions. A quote from ACSWP member Ronald Stone stating that "As an elder of our church, I'd like to say that according to my recent experience, relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders," led to condemnation from several quarters, including the US Congress.
Although outsiders played a role in lobbying PCUSA between 2004 and the 2006, it was the disaffection of numerous church members, spurred on by bad publicity related to events like the meeting with Hizbullah, that helped see divestment unseated at the June 2006 General Assembly meeting in Birmingham, Alabama.
Polls indicated that support for divestment dissipated quickly the closer one got to the pews, and this year's meeting featured dozens of Overtures on the
Just as PCUSA's 2004 decisions blazed the trail for other churches to pass their own divestment resolutions, so the Presbyterians' 2006 reversal on divestment has led to an abandonment of the tactic by other churches, including the Anglicans and United Church of Canada (UCC). The UCC case is particularly telling since that group's General Council rejected specific economic targeting of
In every case where divestment has met with success, it has been the result of a small group of dedicated activists willing to use any tactic, including subverting democratic procedures, to turn a respected organization into an ally. And whenever those decisions could be subjected to democratic input, those victories have been reversed, preventing divestment champions from gaining the momentum needed to make their Apartheid strategy self-sustaining.
When divestment has been democratically defeated, it has never been by a close margin, but by lopsided majorities of 10-20 to 1. It needs to be remembered that these overwhelming numbers do not represent a liberal-conservative split, such as
Also, whenever divestment has gained traction (in political maneuvering more resembling coups than revolutions, much less democratic processes), organizations that have embraced the divestment agenda have been asked to place their most sacred assets on the altar. In the case of the AUT, it was academic freedom. In the case of the Presbyterian Church, it was Christian witness. This is no accident, for someone making a political choice can always change his or her mind. But an institution placing its most valued possession, its reputation, on the line will find it that much more difficult to pull back from the brink.
While it is tempting to look at divestment in retreat as a simple good-news story, there are important lessons to be learned from the struggles of the last four years, especially in light of new violence in
First, the shallow support for divestment, even among liberal-minded institutions, demonstrates that grassroots citizens and group members are not inclined to see their institutions subverted for narrow political purposes. It would be a stretch to say that a Zionist heart beats in the breast of the average Presbyterian, British university lecturer or
Second, divestment's repeated defeats demonstrate the potentially permanent impact of
It may be that divestment, with its call for economic boycott echoing dark chapters in Jewish history, was odious enough to unite individuals and groups with widely varying positions on the
Finally, groups contemplating an embrace of divestment as their means of doing something about the crisis in the
To see the degenerating effects of divestment at its fullest, one need only look at the Green Party in the
It may be that the
Jon Haber is a