Divestment arguments on campus have been framed as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, when in reality divestment is anti-both; divestment advocates, regardless of intention, are pushing for a policy that could make everyone worse off, not only on campus, but in the Middle East as well.
Activists who call for divestment from Israel usually start out with the example of how the tactic of divestment helped overthrow a racist and autocratic regime in South Africa in the 1980s, under which black South Africans were not allowed to vote and were not represented in the government. Companies that operated in South Africa were complicit in supporting this racist government, and the only way to get it to change was to damage South Africa’s bottom line by divesting and boycotting.
The strategy worked, the divestment movement gained international traction, and the regime was overthrown and replaced by the democratically elected African National Congress. Activists today argue that divestment from companies in Israel can help change the policies with which they disagree.
However, the history and situation in the Middle East is vastly different from that of South Africa in the 1980s. Israel is a liberal democracy with Arab and Muslim representation in both its parliament and its Supreme Court. Just as in America, some of Israel’s policies are not ideal. But using divestment, a tool that has been used to promote regime change, should not be the way we express discontent with the most stable, liberal, and democratic country in the Middle East.
While Israel is a stable democracy that has lasting peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, this stability was not always a given. The relative peace between Israel and its neighbors in Egypt and Jordan is largely due to American investment. In the years between 1948 and 1973, the U.S. barely invested in Israel. The average annual U.S. government investment between 1948 and 1973 was four percent of what it is today. In that time period, Israel was consistently under attack from its militarily superior neighbors. Between 1948 and 1973, Israel fought three major defensive wars against the heavily armed Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian armies. Once the United States began investing in the economic and physical security of all parties, however, the level of conflict de-escalated and Israel was able to sign lasting peace treaties.
Today, investment in Israel and Palestine has helped both parties continue to shift the paradigm of conflict away from the large-scale military interventions of the past. One of the key missions of “The Quartet” (which includes the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the U.S.) is to promote private sector development in Palestine by investing. The direct results of this investment have led to a more robust middle class in the West Bank, and record lows in attempted terrorist attacks against Israel. This investment has helped lay out the groundwork for an eventual democratic Palestinian state.
Similarly, investment in Israel’s physical and economic security has helped lead to a record low for Israel in terms of military response to terrorist provocation. The Iron Dome missile defense system, funded partially by U.S. investment, successfully defended Israel from a barrage of 1,500 rockets fired from Gaza during the most recent conflict. In prior conflicts, this rocket attack would have resulted in an Israeli ground invasion. The defensive capability of Iron Dome, however, mitigated the damage from those rockets, preventing the need for a ground invasion and saving thousands of Israeli and Palestinian lives.
There are those who argue that while we have made some progress, the pace has not been fast enough. I agree. There are still human rights concerns, and there are still injustices committed by both Palestinians and Israelis that we need to correct.
But the progress that we have made since the war of 1973, in which more than 20,000 were killed and 40,000 were wounded, to the most recent conflict, in which fewer than 200 died, is entirely due to investments in Palestinian society and security investments like Israel’s Iron Dome and security barrier.
Just as divestment from Palestinian economic security could lead to increases in terrorism, divesting from the companies that supply Israel with the tools it needs to defend itself could be disastrous. Even doing so in words could damage the fragile stability that is the Middle East and send us on a path too dark to imagine.
Justin Hefter ‘11