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Ethics and efficacy of Israel divestment

Divestment from businesses that support Israeli discrimination against Palestinians has become one of the most politically charged issues at Stanford. Stanford Students for Justice in Palestine in concert with various other student groups have submitted a petition to the Trustees of Stanford to remove investments in these companies from its endowment. Before signing a petition, there are some critical questions to be asked. With history as a precedent, how do Israel’s actions compare to those of countries like South Africa, where divestment was pursued? If we agree that Israel should stop such policies, is boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) the best tool to meet this end?

One of the strongest historical parallels that can be drawn to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is Apartheid South Africa, which segregated all aspects of black and white life. Marriage and sexual relations between the two races were illegal; businesses catered exclusively to blacks or whites; 80% of the country was classified as “white land,” after which large numbers of black South Africans were forcibly removed from their homelands. Black South Africans were treated as second-class citizens with second-class rights.

While not exactly equivalent to the Apartheid in South Africa, the treatment of Arab citizens of Israel has proven to be oppressive. To clarify terminology, Israel defines Arab citizens as non-Jewish citizens, most of whom are people of Palestinian ethnic background. Moreover, the particular term apartheid, as defined by the United Nations, refers to policies “committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” There are a multitude of examples of Arab citizens subordinated in Israel. Institutionally, over thirty legal structures discriminate against Palestinians solely based on their ethnicity. Examples include the Land Acquisition Law that transferred land from a total of 349 Arab villages to the state; laws that ban Palestinians married to Israelis from residing in Israel; and, the denial of basic government services to Palestinian villages unrecognized by the state. Culturally, Israel has become intolerant. In survey polls, a third of Israelis believe that Arab citizens should not be recognized and more than half of Israelis would not want to have Arab neighbors or Arab classmates. Such beliefs are reinforced by de facto segregation, and inequity in housing and education between Israeli and Arab citizens. If the US condemned South Africa’s actions for racial injustice, it is ethically consistent to also condemn Israel’s policies, which constitute a similar system to Apartheid.

However, compared to South Africa, divestment and economic sanctions may not be the best solution to the ethnic discrimination in Israel. In South Africa, even though separating blacks from whites resulted in deplorable conditions in bantustans (black segregated towns), the state relied on the black labor force and thus devoted resources to sustain it. In comparison, Israel views Palestinians as a threat to society and wants to actively remove them. This can be partly attributed to Israel’s “bunker mentality” – a sense of victimization, defensiveness, and belligerent patriotism resulting from perceived external threats. Studies conducted by political psychologists have found that this mentality is prevalent among Israeli Jews. Compared to South Africa, the existence of this “bunker mentality” might preclude the efficacy of sanctions given that the state’s perceives its very existence to be threatened. Moreover, BDS might fuel a sense of vulnerability and victimhood, strengthening Israel’s commitment to its current policies.

In addition to “bunker mentality,” a successful strategy to end discrimination in Israel requires US state action, something that the Stanford divestment campaign may not have been taken into account. For example, after the Apartheid, the South African foreign minister addressed the UN regarding what ultimately pushed South Africa to end its policies. He stated, “what mattered perhaps more than all other votes put together was that of [the] U.S. in view of its predominant position of leadership in [the] Western world.” Without official US support for BDS (which is extremely unlikely), divestment from college campuses may not carry the necessary economic and political weight to end Israel’s discriminatory policies.

In particular, there is little chance that the US will support state sanctions that would be crucial to the efficacy of a BDS approach. Geopolitically, Israel provides a crucial geographical ally in the Middle East where many of the US’s strategic and military interests lie, especially with the rise of ISIS. The US has historically supported Israeli forces, providing over $100 billion in military aid that has been used in bolstering Israeli air capacity and missile defense systems. No such geopolitical necessity and historical precedent had existed with South Africa, making it unlikely that the US will divest from Israel.

Moreover, in the case of South Africa, decades before the 1980s movement against the Apartheid, the UN had enacted sanctions against South Africa and the flight of international capital had cut South Africa’s reserves in half. In contrast, capital from the US to Israel has been increasing in the last few decades and renowned investors like Warren Buffet, who recently invested in a $2 billion Israeli tool-making company, have publicly praised Israel as a growing, strong market.

The importance of resisting Israel’s discriminatory and oppressive policies against its Palestinian citizens should not be understated. However, when discussing plans to address this problem at Stanford, we should carefully consider an approach that would be the most feasible in creating change.

Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilman ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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