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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.4 (2003) 877-894

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The Israel Divestment Campaign and the Question of Palestine in America

Saree Makdisi

Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent," warned Harvard President Lawrence Summers at a morning prayer meeting one day last September. "But where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities." 1 Summers's examples of supposedly anti-Semitic activities on university campuses include the call for an academic boycott of Israel (initiated by a letter to the Guardian from two Jewish academics in London), and, closer to home, the nascent campaign on American university campuses—modeled on the successful antiapartheid campaigns of the 1980s—calling for divestment from Israel until it implements UN Security Council resolutions (some of which it has been ignoring for more than fifty years) and adheres to the standards of international humanitarian law as codified, for example, in the Fourth Geneva Convention (which Israel has been violating on a daily basis since its 1967 conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 2 [End Page 877]

It is in fact astonishing that the divestment campaign should have generated so much controversy, given that its primary demand is simply that a country that is showered with official and unofficial American assistance, investment, and general munificence—some ten million to fifteen million dollars a day and more, in addition to billions of dollars in loan guarantees, even at a time of massive budget cuts depriving American citizens of their most fundamental needs—merely acknowledge and implement the rule of law. After all, Iraq, which has violated some of the same laws (albeit for a much shorter period of time) has been punished by two devastating wars, one "regime change," and over a decade of crippling sanctions in between, which, by some counts, have caused up to a million otherwise preventable deaths, including those of half a million children. By comparison, the suspension of investment in Israel for its much more brazen and longer-lasting violation of UN resolutions and human rights principles would be the merest slap on the wrist. Indeed, the likelihood of such a move seems somewhat remote for the time being: the United States extended an additional billion dollars of military aid to Israel even as the second American war on Iraq for its supposed defiance of the UN was winding down, with U.S. army units imposing a military occupation of their own. And yet the divestment campaign has generated a wave of seemingly hysterical reactions, defined not merely by the rhetorical tactic equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, but also by stirring calls to rally to the defense of what its apologists represent as an unfairly singled-out victim of a hate campaign.

Conflating the U.S. divestment campaign with a grossly distorted account of the European academic boycott (which in any case is more a statement of principle than of concrete action), 3 the hostile reaction to the divestment campaign in the United States has been argued partly on the grounds of academic and intellectual freedom—hence Summers's rhetorical comparison of the campaign to right-wing populism aimed at an uneducated audience—and partly on the grounds that it is unfair to single out Israel from among the crowd of the world's human rights abusers. "The whole campaign for divestment is educational malpractice by professors," writes Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. "It turns the world upside down. It takes the country which has probably best struck the balance between security and liberty and turns it into the pariah, and rewards countries that don't even try to strike a balance." 4 Although many supporters of the divestment movement, including one of the earliest proponents of the movement, Professor [End Page 878] Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois, and the legendary antiapartheid campaigners Desmond Tutu...


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