More Thoughts on Divestment

Over the last few weeks, there has been a lot of discussion about Divestment at the Five Colleges. An attempt at Hampshire College to get the school to divest from companies seen to aid the Israeli army failed (even though a student group tried to claim that it succeeded). At the other colleges, groups and individuals are trying to get the colleges endowments to divest as well (the farthest along is a vote next week at UMASS student government).

I posted a blog entry about Divestment before the Hampshire fiasco (featuring Alan Dershowitz in a public spat with the college until everyone understood what happened). A Smith student posted a comment which I only saw for the first time Tuesday evening.

Here is a quote from the comment: "You know that claiming that Divestment is anti-Semitic alienates yourself from dialogue and widens the rift between supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine. I think you scare away those who disagree. It is an attempt to immediately delegitimize the actions of those who support divestment. No peace-loving individual enjoys being labeled as someone who hates Jewish people."

I reread my original post to see where I labeled proponents of Divestment Anti-Semitic. I still don't think I did, but will expand on my thoughts about Divestment to make it clearer. I am very concerned that something I write will be considered stifling of discussion or scare people away from interacting with me.

In order to examine these issues, it is necessary to define terms. To do so, I quote from a recent ADL publication (Fighting Back: A Handbook for Responding to Anti-Israel Campaigns on College and University Campuses):

Anti-Israel refers to extreme and/or illegitimate criticism of Israel that can take many forms, including the denial of Israel’s right to exist and/or holding Israel to different or higher standards than other countries. Anti-Israel sentiment should be distinguished from legitimate critiques or questioning of specific Israeli government policies, politicians, and so on.
Anti-Semitism is prejudice and/or discrimination against Jews. Anti-Semitism can be based on hatred against Jews because of their religious beliefs, their group membership (ethnicity) and sometimes the erroneous belief that Jews are a race.
Anti-Zionism is criticism or rejection of the right of Jews to have their own homeland.

According to these definitions, Divestment from Israel (or companies that profit from the Israeli Army) is Anti-Israel because it holds Israel to a different or higher standard and extends beyond legitimate discussion of Israel government policies and actions. To give one example, China has occupied Tibet since 1959: any group that Divests from Israel without bringing the action against China (or the many similar cases) is Anti-Israel. If it were a part of a broader campaign to Divest from all similar cases, it would not be Anti-Israel. I wrote that Divestment often uses Anti-Semitic rhetoric or assumptions. Remember, I wrote this before the Hampshire incident and without reading anything written by Students for Justice in Palestine at any of the Five Colleges. All that I have read about Divestment--including the web pages of national organizations that promote it are Anti-Zionist and Anti-Israel. Many do not cross the complicated line to Anti-Semitism, but some of its proponents do so. Focus on Israel and its policies when other similar cases are ignored is heir to centuries of Anti-Semitism. That doesn't mean that it is Anti-Semitism but that Anti-Israel sentiment draws on historical Anti-Semitic rhetoric and concepts. Those who doubt this must study the history of Anti-Semitism.

In case I was not clear in my previous post or any oral communication: questioning and criticism of Israel is opinion and political thought that is appropriate, even encouraged, in an academic setting (this happens all of the time in Israel and the American Jewish community--especially in the Pioneer Valley). If the questioning denies Israel's right to exist or holds it to a higher standard than other countries, it is Anti-Israel. Not all Divestment activists are Anti-Semitic. Some may claim to be narrowly focused and not Anti-Israel. But the movement itself to question Israel alone for its existence, policies, and actions is a modern incarnation of age-old hatred of Jews. The technical term for that type of bigotry is Anti-Semitism. The actions may not be Anti-Semitic but the premise of deligitimizing Israel (no one will be able to convince me that any form of Divestment is anything but an attempt to deligitimize Israel) is heir to centuries of Anti-Semitism. (Whenever this comes up, I hear people arguing that since Arabs are Semites they can not be Anti-Semitic. The term was coined to refer to hatred of Jews and that is its only technical meaning. This has two implications: bigotry/hatred of Arabs or Muslims is not Anti-Semitsm, Arabs and Muslims can be Anti-Semites.)

When a recent Anti-Israel rally included a speaker who said: "The Jew infested US Congress. . .", that was Anti-Semitism in the plainest form. It had little to do with any political point, transcended any legitimate criticism of Israel or its policies, and should not be tolerated in the Five Colleges. It draws on historical Anti-Semitic imagery of the Jews as parasite or vermin. That no student or faculty member at the event stopped the speaker is troubling to me to say the least. If I were ever at a Pro-Israel event on my campus and a speaker spoke similar hate speech about any group, I would stop the speaker and/or issue a statement distancing myself and the Jewish communities I represent from the hate. This has still not occurred. I have a few theories for why this may be the case but I will leave these to further posts.

To summarize, I do not believe that all Divestment activists are Anti-Semites. They may not even all consider themselves Anti-Israel. I am not convinced that a credible claim can be made that Divestment (even if narrowly defined to refer to Occupation or the military) can be anything but Anti-Israel. The only exception would be if Divestment was applied equally and with the same fervor to all similar situations.

I believe that peace starts here with us. If we promote investment in peace and coexistence, if we work to build understanding and dialogue, we will help bring peace. Deligitimizing Israel, using hateful rhetoric, and standing quiet while students rant Anti-Semitic statements does none of this. Questioning and criticising Israel when done respectfully and with a critical stance is part of the academic process. Rallies where negation, deligitimization, and hatred are used creates an environment where students do not feel safe to voice their beliefs. This infringes on the academic process.

At a later time, I will write about the historical and theological importance of Israel for Jews and Judaism. Lack of understanding about this is fundamental in understanding moves for Divestment and deligitimization of Israel as well as the reaction Jewish leaders take when they arise. More on this to come.

I have been working hard on the campuses of Smith and Amherst to maintain a level of dialogue and respect. I encourage responses in person, on the phone, or by email. Learning from each other is the primary task of academia.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce

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