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October 28, 2002

Why Divest from Israel

Israel is just that issue that just slams a knife between allies on most other issues. MaxSpeak has gone after Brad Delong for the latter's slams against the divestment campaign targetting Israel.

I'm with Max that such divestment efforts are not inherently antisemitic, even if some who promote them are, but then some of the Christians who most strongly support Israel are far more deeply and scarily antisemitic with their conviction that all Jews will and should die to fulfill God's plans.

I disagree with Max that the folks promoting divestment don't have an obligation to integrate their criticism of Israel into a broader debate on the democratic failings of Egypt, or even more crucially, Syria and Iraq.

My strongest criticism of much of the left is that it largely lacks that broader viewpoint, a failing in taking on the comprehensive views of the "war party." Inconsistency is an invitation for people -- Brad being the most honorable version -- to discredit the left's arguments about Israel's brutality to the Palestinians.

A few summers ago, I visited Hama, where former Syrian President Assad mass murdered over ten thousand Sunni political opponents back in the 1980s. In the hostel where I stayed, a Palestinian manning the desk lamented to me the oppression suffered by Palestinians within Syria, denied equal rights and often denied the right to leave. Egypt continues to brutalize its own population and suppress every demand for democracy. Kuwait, at the end of the Gulf War, expelled 350,000 long-time Palestinian residents, "driven out by a combination of summary executions, torture, detention, forced expulsions, and a variety of other pressures."

So why a divestment campaign targetting Israel and not other countries? One answer is the simplest -- it might have an effect on Israeli policy. Campus activists join Amnesty International in large numbers and write letters to demand the release of Egyptian prisoners, but the amount of total foreign investment in that country in 2000 was just $1.6 billion. So a divestment campaign would be pretty useless.

The reason divestment of South Africa excited students in the 1980s was that it was something student activists could do locally on their campus, without needing to wait to win the complete battle at the national level. Campus activists face a national political situation where there is little prospect of shifting national government policy on Israel significantly. It is in that context that divestment from Israel makes sense for the Left.

But that tactical argument has to be made in a broader analysis and strategy of targetting injustice across the whole region.

Posted by Nathan at October 28, 2002 08:01 PM

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First, I think Newman and I (and maybe Brad) agree that the main problem with the divestment advocated on US campuses and underway in Europe is that it is hypocrytical. It singles out Israel and thereby tacitly condones nations with even bloodier hands. It is also worth also noting that Israel is basically democratic, and a significant minority actually opposed the current leadership. I'm of the opinion that most of the left-leaners who support divestment target Israel not because it is a Jewish state, but because it is mordern and western and rich—fitting their image of a prototypical oppressor. However, I also believe the perception of anti-semitism by Israel will only harden the nation against its western critics. Which is to say divestment would probably backfire.

A final note: Most of the Biblical literalsts who believe the establishment of Israel was a precursor to the Last Days don't believe all Jews will perish. Rather, they believe a significant number (often 120,000) will recognize the Messiah and preach to humanity. Regardless, they don't consider Jews more likely than Gentiles to be damned. Oddly enough, the Left Behind author was discussing this on Fresh Air the other day.

Posted by: nathan lott at October 30, 2002 03:39 PM

I don't think divestment is necessarily hypocritical, just that those advocating it should deal with the broader context of the Middle East.

I think Israel is far outside democratic norms when it denies the vote to millions of Palestinians and subjects them to horrible violations of their human rights. To bring up the analogy that is harsh but real, South Africa was a democracy for its white members, but that didn't make it a democracy by any international norm.

Posted by: Nathan at October 30, 2002 07:56 PM

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