Viewpoint: Consider divestment from Israel and Palestine


Published March 30, 2006

The problems in Iraq, Iran and the rest of the Middle East have many causes, but one issue is of singular importance: U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This occupation, and the resulting apartheid-like structure, create conditions under which violent reactions are inevitable.

For many years, peace advocates around the world have been pressing for Israel to leave Palestine and for the United States to halt its unilateral support of Israel. And our involvement is not trivial; we give roughly $6 billion in aid to Israel every year. As long as we continue to support Israel without pressing for a just resolution to the occupation, we will be seen by the Muslim and Arab world as accomplices to crimes against the Palestinian people.

One successful tactic for enacting change is divestment, the selling of stock in U.S. corporations that continue to support the occupation. And of course, if corporations are found to be aiding Palestinian violence, the same standards should apply.

On March 17, several faculty, staff and students initiated a campaign to call upon the University Board of Regents to consider divestment. As it happens, there is a formal procedure for divestment as established by the regents themselves back in 1978: If any particular investment "involves serious moral or ethical questions which are of concern to many members of the University community," then "an advisory committee . will be appointed." The committee will investigate the matter and make recommendation to the regents for or against divestment.

This process has happened twice before: with respect to South African apartheid in 1978, and with tobacco stocks in 2000. In both cases, divestment was recommended and implemented.

Certainly the situation in Palestine differs in many ways from that in South Africa and from the health risks posed by tobacco. They are vastly different issues but share two common qualities: They all present "serious moral or ethical questions" with regard to our investments, and they are of concern to a large number of people within the University community. The University holds millions of dollars in corporate stocks that are implicated in the occupation - more than $18 million, by one accounting. Certainly it meets the standard as defined in 1978.

The formation of such a committee represents a minimal first step toward taking positive action. The 38-year Israeli presence in Palestine is undoubtedly a serious moral issue, and it is costing lives on both sides - though at a rate seven times higher for Palestinians (since September 2000). The occupation has been condemned by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B'tselem and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The occupation is both immoral and illegal; it encourages retaliatory violence, and the University ought not be party to it in any way.

Given that there are many human rights abuses around the world, why pick this particular issue? There are many reasons: (a) No other conflict is so directly sustained by the products and services of U.S. corporations - corporations of which the University is part-owner. (b) This conflict is the one with the greatest global consequence, since it has been an important factor in both Gulf wars, the Sept. 11 attacks and the war on terror. (c) This conflict has involved more people, over a longer period of time, than any other.

A second concern is the issue of "taking sides." Some claim that the University should remain "neutral" on this whole subject. But there is no being neutral here. The occupation is in its 38th year, and the University continues to hold millions of dollars in corporations directly involved. The University is funding and profiting from the occupation. This is a grave insult to Palestinians, Arabs and sympathetic Muslims - not to mention to world opinion. The status quo is an offense to the University's Arab and Muslim faculty, staff and students. It is an offense to Arab and Muslim taxpayers who fund the University. It is an offense to those who seek a just peace.

Third: Many progressives prefer to carry on with talks, dialogues, colloquia and various bridge-building exercises. These are fine - except they show no evidence of success. If the "progress" of the past 38 years is all we have to show for our efforts at dialogue, then clearly it is time to try something else. The fact that over 170 leaders of Palestinian civil society have called for divestment assures us that it is the right action and may have some effect upon ending the occupation.

There is a final, and most troubling, concern: Some who are clearly in sympathy with a divestment inquiry are afraid to speak out publicly, for fear of implicit or explicit retribution by colleagues and students within the University. Concerns have also been expressed that donations will be reduced if a divestment inquiry is undertaken. But threats of harassment or reduced donations are, of course, no proper basis for making a decision about moral investments. Any such threats are absolutely intolerable in a free and open university and must be immediately and categorically condemned.

The University of Michigan is a public university, and it must pay heed to public concern. We should support an inquiry on moral principle. The occupation is wrong and efforts promoting its end are morally right actions. And one thing is certain: Nothing will happen if no one raises a voice.

Many in the University, and in the state of Michigan, are advocates of human rights. Many are antiwar. Many have great concern for Palestinian - and Israeli - suffering. All these causes are served by exploring divestment.

David Skrbina is a lecturer at the University's Dearborn campus. Thomson is an associate professor emeritus at the Dearborn campus.

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee -- Detroit
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee -- Kalamazoo
Ann Arbor Coalition Against the War
Congress of Arab American Organizations of Michigan (comprised of 40 organizations)
Most Rev. Thomas J. Gumbleton--Auxiliary Bishop Archdiocese of Detroit
Friends of Sabeel -- SE Michigan
InterDenominational Advocates for Peace
The Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice
International Solidarity Movement -- Michigan
Jewish Voice for Peace
Michigan Peace Team
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire
Nobel Peace Prize Nominee (2003 & 2004) International Solidarity Movement
Nobel Peace Prize Nominee (1999, 2000 & 2001) Kathy Kelly
Palestine Aid Society
Palestine Israel Action Group of Ann Arbor Friends Meeting
Palestine Office -- Michigan
Pax Christi -- Michigan
Social Concerns Committee of the Ann Arbor Unitarian Universalist Congregation
University of Michigan/Dearborn Arab Student Union
University of Michigan/Dearborn Student Government