I’ve deliberately stayed out of the debate about the divestment campaign by U.S. Protestant churches against American companies aiding the Israeli Occupation. While I am as opposed to the Occupation as any Protestant supporter of divestment, I view the churches’ debate on this as their own, but not something on which I as a Jew feel compelled to take a position.
But Laurie Goodstein’s story in the Times on the subject struck a chord. While I’m still not ready to wholeheartedly endorse divestment (for reasons I’ll explain), I’m coming steps closer to this position.
The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. announced Friday that it would press four American corporations to stop providing military equipment and technology to Israel for use in the occupation of the Palestinian territories, and that if the companies did not comply, the church would take a vote to divest its stock in them.
The companies – Caterpillar, Motorola, ITT Industries and United Technologies – were selected from a list of several dozen possibilities by a church investment committee that met Friday in Seattle. The Presbyterians accused…Caterpillar of selling Israel heavy equipment used for demolishing Palestinian homes, and of constructing roads and infrastructure in the occupied territories and Israeli settlements…
It included United Technologies Corporation, a military contractor, because a subsidiary provides helicopters used by the Israeli military “in attacks in the occupied territories against suspected Palestinian terrorists”…
[And] it identified Motorola because the company has a contract to develop wireless encrypted communications for the Israeli military in the territories and is a “majority investor in one of Israel’s four cell phone companies”…
ITT also made the church’s list because, the committee said, it supplies the Israeli military with “communications, electronic and night vision equipment used by its forces in the occupied territories.”
I think the churches present a compelling case that some American companies are profiting off the misery of Palestinians who suffer under an onslaught of American-made weapons and equipment used by the IDF. There is no question that the Occupation is evil. And therefore there is no question that divestment is a legitimate form of protest and leverage against the Occupation.
But here’s my problem with divestment. It’s a terribly imprecise weapon to use in this context. First, the IDF, besides oppressing Palestinians in the Territories does engage in legitimate self-defense of Israel proper. How can one distinguish between the use of U.S. products by the IDF in offensive operations in the Territories as opposed to self-defense? For me, the IDF’s use of force in a defensive posture is totally legitimate. Some supporters of divestment may scoff at this distinction but it is meaningful to me.
Second, someone will have to explain to me how Motorola’s
“develop[ing] wireless encrypted communications for the Israeli military in the territories and [being] a “majority investor in one of Israel’s four cell phone companies” poses as a moral evil.
The second half of the sentence about Motorola being an investor in an Israeli cell company seems a laughable criteria for inclusion on the divestment list. Since when is such an investment considered evil and why? As for developing encrypted communications…what precisely does the communications involve? I’d say if it involves communication codes that allow Israeli pilots to communicate with their bases and receive orders to bomb Palestinians or allows them to arm and fire those bombs, then this makes the company a legitmate divestment candidate.
UPDATE: Stewart has pointed me to the Presbyterian Conference website’s expanded explanation of Motorola’s involvement in cell phone service in the Territories. This passage, to me, makes Motorola a plausible target of the PCUSA campaign:
…the [Israeli cell phone] companies place their equipment in Israeli settlements with sufficient capacity to cover every Palestinian community. Without regulation, the companies have undercut prices and threatened the ability of the Palestinian cell phone company to survive. They also take advantage of the Israeli government policy of delaying or prohibiting the importation of modern equipment into Palestine [Tikun Olam note: presumably for the Palestinian cell phone company]. In addition, such practices evade taxes (estimated at over $40 million) that could help the Palestinian Authority develop its economy, and deprive Palestinian operators of revenue (estimated at over $500 million). The lost taxes and revenue go into the Israeli economy, and probably into the settlements through fees for placing equipment and discounts for cell phone service.
Third, given that Israel produces the lion’s share of its military needs itself within its own borders, I’m not sure how much leverage divestment really provides.
Fourth, the “radical fringe” of the pro-divestment community wish to see the U.S. government to “divest” from Israel by shutting off all aid. I reject this position. Not all U.S. aid to Israel is military aid (though much is), and therefore blocking all U.S. aid would be unnecessarily draconian.
Fifth, I feel much more ambivalent about the related subject of academic boycott of Israeli universities. As someone whose life has been immeasurably enriched by university life both here in the U.S. and in Israel, I cannot see how such a boycott advances a political goal of ending the Occupation. I am certainly opposed to Bar Ilan University establishing a West Bank branch (Ariel College) and feel this would make Bar Ilan a worthy target of a boycott. But the same cannot be said for other Israeli institutions of higher learning, which some on the Left advocate boycotting as well.
I see divestment basically as a sledgehammer approach to moral suasion. It’s imprecise. It’s messy. That’s why I believe that the churches must be very careful in choosing their targets. In most cases they may be choosing appropriate ones but they must be sure that everyone is legitimate.
So what it comes down to is I believe that while divestment is an imperfect tool, it can be a legitimate tool. The Occupation is pure evil. The Israeli government is not prepared to end the Occupation anytime soon. The more difficult Israel finds it is to arm itself using foreign military contractors the more complicated its military options become. Anything that slows the Israeli military machine in terms of its function in the Territories is a legitimate form of protest against this evil.