Do I Divest?
Desmond Tutu and Ian UrbinaOctober
This article originally
appeared on CounterPunch at http://www.counterpunch.org/tutu1017.html
The end of apartheid stands as
one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century, but we would
not have succeeded without the help of international pressure - in particular
the divestment movement of the 1980s. Over the past six months, a similar
movement has taken shape, this time aiming at an end to the Israeli
Divestment from apartheid South Africa was fought by ordinary people
at the grassroots. Faith-based leaders informed their followers, union
members pressured their companies' stockholders and consumers questioned
their store owners. Students played an especially important role by
compelling universities to change their portfolios. Eventually, institutions
pulled the financial plug, and the South African government thought
twice about its policies.
Similar moral and financial pressures on Israel are being mustered one
person at a time. Students on more than forty campuses in the U.S. are
demanding a review of university investments in Israeli companies as
well as in firms doing major business in Israel. From Berkeley to Ann
Arbor, city councils have debated municipal divestment measures.
These tactics are not the only parallels to the struggle against apartheid.
Yesterday's South African township dwellers can tell you about today's
life in the Occupied Territories. To travel only blocks in his own homeland,
a grandfather waits on the whim of a teenage soldier. More than an emergency
is needed to get to a hospital; less than a crime earns a trip to jail.
The lucky ones have a permit to leave their squalor to work in Israel's
cities, but their luck runs out when security closes all checkpoints,
paralyzing an entire people. The indignities, dependence and anger are
all too familiar.
Many South Africans are beginning to recognize the parallels to what
we went through. Ronnie Kasrils and Max Ozinsky, two Jewish heroes of
the anti-apartheid struggle, recently published a letter titled "Not
in My Name." Signed by several hundred other prominent Jewish South
Africans, the letter drew an explicit analogy between apartheid and
current Israeli policies. Mark Mathabane and Nelson Mandela have also
pointed out the relevance of the South African experience.
To criticize the occupation is not to overlook Israel's unique strengths,
just as protesting the Vietnam War did not imply ignoring the distinct
freedoms and humanitarian accomplishments of the United States. In a
region where repressive governments and unjust policies are the norm,
Israel is certainly more democratic than its neighbours. This does not
make dismantling the settlements any less a priority. Divestment from
apartheid South Africa was certainly no less justified because there
was repression elsewhere on the African continent. Aggression is no
more palatable in the hands of a democratic power. Territorial ambition
is equally illegal whether it occurs in slow motion, as with the Israeli
settlers in the Occupied Territories, or in blitzkrieg fashion, as with
the Iraqi tanks in Kuwait.
The United States has a distinct responsibility to intervene in atrocities
committed by its client states, and since Israel is the single largest
recipient of U.S. arms and foreign aid, an end to the occupation should
be a top concern.
Almost instinctively, the Jewish people have always been on the side
of the voiceless. In their history, there is painful memory of massive
roundups, house demolitions and collective punishment. In their scripture,
there is acute empathy for the disfranchised. The occupation represents
a dangerous and selective amnesia of the persecution from which these
traditions were born.
Not everyone has forgotten, including some within the military. The
growing Israeli refusenik movement evokes the small anti-conscription
drive that helped turn the tide in apartheid South Africa. Several hundred
decorated Israeli officers have refused to perform military service
in the Occupied Territories. Those not already in prison have taken
their message on the road to U.S. synagogues and campuses, rightly arguing
that Israel needs security but that it will never have it as an occupying
More than thirty-five new settlements have been constructed in the past
year. Each one is a step away from the safety deserved by the Israelis,
and two steps away from the justice owed to the Palestinians. If apartheid
ended, so can this occupation, but the moral force and international
pressure will have to be just as determined. The current divestment
effort is the first, though certainly not the only, necessary move in
Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his
work against apartheid. This piece was written in collaboration with
Ian Urbina of the Middle East
Research and Information Project in Washington, DC.