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Op-Ed: Understanding divestment

As a campaign begins at Stanford proposing divestment from selected companies associated with military occupation and human rights abuses in Israel-Palestine, Yishai Kabakar of Stanford Israel Alliance seems to be striking early to take control of the rhetorical ground where the debate will unfold.

In reading Mr. Kabaker’s piece closely, I will try to make two points. First, it does a disservice to people of good will who care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when it relentlessly insists that the divestment discussion is utterly dark, divisive, and destructive. This view, which fills most of the article, attempts to make the debate radioactive before it starts, whereas I suggest that the debate can be positive and fruitful. Second, the article transitions to a place of common ground on which those who want the welfare of both Israelis and Palestinians can meet. I commend Mr. Kabaker and SIA for the excellent projects described in the last few paragraphs.

The article begins with a cascade of negative language regarding a divestment campaign at Stanford three years ago: “divisive … damaging … people … alienated and disillusioned … Interfaith dialogue … deeply shaken.”

A recent debate on divestment in Berkeley’s ASUC Senate, we read, was “equally traumatic,” though “the bill at Berkeley was also defeated.” This seems to me an inadequate representation of what happened at Berkeley. The bill won a majority Senate vote, was vetoed by the president, and fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto. Speakers in favor of the bill included such distinguished Berkeley professors as Judith Butler and Daniel Boyarin, as well as Hastings law professor George Bisharat and UN Special Rapporteur on human rights Richard Falk. The bill was endorsed by 100 UC faculty. Five Nobel Peace Prize laureates – Desmond Tutu, Shirin Ebadi, Mairead Maguire, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, and Jody Williams – expressed support in writing.

This and other evidence should make us consider that something important and valuable might have been taking place in that debate. But no, we continue to be deluged in the language of dark catastrophe. A Chabad rabbi paints the effort as “fight[ing] darkness with darkness.” There are dire predictions of more negativity, damage, polarization, making “peace even more elusive” if talk of divestment (even on a relatively symbolic level) continues.

Particularly interesting is this: “In the past divestment campaigns helped combat apartheid in Africa and genocide in Darfur. However, the divestment campaign against Israel is a crass bludgeon, which reduces an incredibly complex situation to euphemisms and demonizations.”

Divestment was good for South Africa and Darfur but it is wrong and crass for Israel. Why is that?

Finally, I know one of the leaders in the effort to put divestment on the table in Stanford’s Undergraduate Senate. Fadi Quran, the only student presently at Stanford who actually lives in the Palestinian territories, participated in a Stanford overseas seminar in India on Gandhi’s legacy, which was led by Prof. Clayborne Carson and me. Fadi’s language and tactics are very far from being divisive, polarizing, or negative. He is making enormous efforts in the opposite direction, reaching out in respectful and loving terms to those who disagree with him, affirming the primacy of love as defined by Gandhi and King, linked to a total commitment to nonviolence, along with the courage to struggle for justice and peace against great odds.

So who is polarizing? Where is the darkness coming from?

I fully agree with Yishai Kabaker’s statement that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deep, complex, and painful,” and with his support for an independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. I deeply appreciate the Stanford Israel Alliance’s involvement in positive work to build desperately needed infrastructure and connections between Israeli and Palestinian “businessmen, environmentalists, and civil leaders to forge common frameworks between the two peoples.”

May peace and mutual understanding come to the region.

Linda Hess
Senior Lecturer
Department of Religious Studies

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