URP leaderboard June 2024

In Defense of Divestment

Unpacking the Israeli Lobby’s Arguments


Not long after CUPE Ontario passed its now-famous Resolution 50 in support of the divestment, boycott and sanctions (DBS) campaign against Israel, the union received a significant letter of solidarity from the Congress of South African Trade Unions. The letter admonished CUPE, “Those supporting the ideology of Zionism and the pro-Israeli lobby will muster their substantial resources against you.”


Muster they did, and for a while CUPE took serious heat – until Israel’s recent bloody invasions of Gaza and Lebanon. Today, the critics of divestment look silly. But everyone knows they’ll be back like bad pennies soon enough. We at CD thought it might be a service to our readers to collect their ritualized arguments in a single article, and shoot them down one by one.

Get ready. It’s pitiful stuff!

1. Divestment singles out democratic Israel while ignoring the many nations that have no respect for human rights.

Darn right we’re singling out Israel – just like we singled out South Africa. If anyone knows how to run an anti-apartheid campaign without choosing a clear objective, please let us know.

Actually, Israel singles out itself – actively and often. Israelis and Israel apologists never hesitate to proclaim how across the whole Middle East Israel is the only democracy (false), the only Middle Eastern country where women can vote (false) and that values human rights (patently absurd!). Jewish citizenship in Israel is widely considered a “birthright” and right-wing religious Israelis (many “secular” Israelis, too) will tell you that Israel’s claim to the land of Palestine stems from God Himself. Clearly, Israelis and their advocates have a pretty high opinion of themselves!

As for Israeli democracy, instead of asking Jewish Israelis about it, ask Palestinian Israelis – about one fifth of Israel’s population. Palestinian citizens of Israel can run for public office – but only if they support Israel’s Jewish “state character.” Jewish Knesset members routinely insult and humiliate Palestinian members – and frequently call for the forced expulsion of Palestinian citizens from Israel.

Palestinian Israelis are also denied the lion’s share of social services and property rights. In Israel’s 2002 budget, for example, the housing ministry allocates about $30 per person in Israeli Arab communities over against $3,100 per person in Jewish communities. Another example: Rather than buying land, Israelis lease it from the Jewish National Fund. Jews may “buy” land on 99-year leases; Palestinian Israelis can only get leases of a few years – and in general Palestinians experience a continuous struggle against a regime of permits and licenses that are often next to impossible to obtain.

Related, the United Nations Committee Against Torture has repeatedly condemned Israel for its continued use of torture against Palestinian civilians. Amnesty International notes that, “Israel is the only country on earth where torture and ill treatment are legally sanctioned.” And over 9,000 Palestinians are being held as political prisoners by Israel, including 400 children.

One could go on and on with such examples without even mentioning the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere who are not citizens of Israel. At press time, the kind of Israeli “democracy” available to these Palestinians is visible on the international news pretty much every night.

2. Israel and South Africa are apples and oranges.

No one claims that the situation in Israel is exactly the same as that in South Africa. Indeed, certain former victims of South African apartheid no less distinguished than Bishop Desmond Tutu have suggested that the situation of Palestinians under Israeli occupation is if anything far worse than that of South African Blacks under apartheid.

Further, back when South Africa was a global pariah under general embargo, Israel was one of the South African apartheid regime’s biggest supporters. Israel helped South Africa develop its nuclear program and to circumvent the international embargo.

3. Wouldn’t promoting dialogue be a more productive approach to building peace in the region?

Wouldn’t it? Israel has always tried to paint itself as a benevolent, do-gooder “peace partner” locked into a cycle of failed negotiations with pig-headed, trigger-happy Arabs who “never fail to miss an opportunity” for peace. Yet, a more measured look at the facts will reveal that Israel has never shown interest in diplomacy and negotiations with its Arab neighbours.

Throughout its history Israel has treated the Palestinians with unwavering contempt. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, proposed solving the “Palestinian problem” by turning Palestinians into “human dust.”

Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza last year offers another example of Israeli unwillingness to deal with Arabs. In the words of Dov Weisglass, Ariel Sharon’s senior political advisor: “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process … you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem…. The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” Do people truly eager to negotiate peace and friendship normally employ terms used in embalming and taxidermy?

At press time, the Israeli forces are out on killing sprees in both Gaza and Lebanon supposedly because of three captured Israeli soldiers. Were Israel truly concerned about recovering its soldiers alive, it could have attempted to negotiate their release. To date, no such move toward dialogue has been attempted.

4. Advocating for divestment and boycott is anti-semitic.

Anti-semitism accusations against critics of Israel are a form of rhetorical shrapnel: they’re ugly, cheap to produce and can knock an opponent’s forces out of play. The shrapnel analogy obtains further: If your opponents are firing it at you, chances are you’re flying near the target. In this calculus, the most educated, informed, eloquent critics of Israel must also be the most virulent, irrational anti-semites.

The problem of anti-semitism is real, but the problem is far more limited in scope than the never-ending fear mongering perpetuated by Israel apologists would allow. Every two or three years, B’nai Brith and the Anti-Defamation League publish reports warning of some “new anti-semitism” in Europe and North America – even as Jews on both continents enjoy greater material wealth, privilege, prestige and social integration relative to most other ethnic groups. “Anti-semitism of the Left” is an even wilder assertion, and those who fling it never seem able to accompany their accusations with explanations. Confronted with the fact that a large fraction of Palestine liberation activists are of Jewish descent, the Israel apologists invented the concept of “self-hating Jews.” It’s anti-semitism for Jews! I told you this was pitiful stuff.

With an arrogant, unilateralist Israel on the rampage, and the world’s most powerful nations unprepared to act, the situation in Palestine isn’t pretty. It therefore falls to us, the people of the world, to compel Israel to walk in accordance with international law and respect for human rights. Through the DBS campaign, we can bring the necessary pressure to bear. With apologies to Margaret Thatcher: There is no alternative.

This article appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Good to the Last Drop).


PSAC leaderboard

Browse the Archive