Levi Teitel: Don't ignore divestment's history

Thursday, November 16, 2017 - 4:42pm

Perhaps to your chagrin, this is another column regarding the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement at the University of Michigan. In BDS’s iteration on campus, only the “D” — divestment — was up for proposal. Rather than formally opposing or supporting one side of the debate, I wish to contextualize both the origins and current situation the University community is grappling with: the vociferous and drawn-out Central Student Government debate and subsequent vote over whether the University’s Board of Regents should create a committee to investigate companies in Israel accused of human rights violations against Palestinians. Speeches from students and community leaders of all affiliations highlighted their personal narratives that shaped their outlook on the resolution. 

As we understood Tuesday evening, there are too many sides not just in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also concerning BDS. What exactly are the stakes of what’s being argued? In the end, these concerns reveal the emotions people invest in this issue and the contention that ensues as a result. For all sides, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate this into words when instead actions may serve more apropos. In many transnational conflicts, land and nationhood are both symbols of pride used to formulate their own identities and differentiate themselves from others.

I recognize that by presenting “both sides” to this argument I am omitting the nuances and multiple perspectives groups and individuals bring when discussing this issue. My intention, therefore, is to highlight the central concerns and history of what exactly is being thrust into the limelight.

In the eyes of both BDS’s supporters and detractors, each side considers the other to be expunging history. This month was the centennial of the signing of the Balfour Declaration, which some historians view as ground zero of the “100 year war” between Jews and Arabs. Though the current situation in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank bears little in common with the genesis of this schism, both sides of the BDS debate on Tuesday night cited the need to reinvestigate the circumstances that enabled the present-day reality.

The timing of the divestment vote and the Balfour Declaration’s centennial could not be more fitting. In the midst of the centennial, academics are contemplating what the current status of the Arab-Israeli conflict means. Bernard Avishai and Rashid Khalidi published pieces in The New Yorker and Jacobin, respectively, addressing these concerns. Understanding the parallels between the present and past allows us to see the continuities in political debate.

Avishai, though more circumspect in his telling, stresses that from the outset the Balfour Declaration had an “equality of obligation,” in the words of the British Colonial Office, to both Arabs and Jews. While the Balfour Declaration became reified in 1917, Jewish immigration to Palestine had long been in place and would only increase in the years before the Israeli state was established in 1948 (and thereafter).

Khalidi, on the other hand, is more deterministic in assigning the Balfour Declaration as the birth of the conflict. From his perspective, the “triple bind” of Zionist colonization, British imperialism and lack of international sympathy played into the shorthand of the stick Palestinians received.

From the outset, the United States has considered assistance to Israel in the national interest. President Harry Truman was one of the first international leaders to express support for the nascent Jewish state when it declared statehood in 1948. Since then, support has ebbed and flowed. Most Americans today hold Israel in high regard, but both generational and ideological differences are indicators of either support or disapproval.

BDS has thus become a linchpin of where one stands with Israel. From the movement’s official website, BDS is a global campaign and “Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality” that “upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.” Divestment entails foregoing investments with any companies that deal directly with Israel. In this case, the movement targets Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Hewlett-Packard — all of which contribute to the University’s endowment.

While conservatives are contemptuous of college students for not supporting free speech ideals, Palestinian students (of whom Students for Allied Freedom and Equality — SAFE — spoke on behalf) contend that they have been continuously silenced for speaking out for what they believe is an injustice to themselves and their community. All such concerns stem from a fear of further marginalization at the hands of a student government that has rejected their proposal in successive fashion.

But the same concerns regarding free speech and marginalization come from the other side as well. Multiple students wrote an op-ed in The Michigan Daily expressing concern that BDS further divides and is antithetical to the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan. Commentary magazine columnist Jonathan Tobin wrote that the companies SAFE seeks to divest from protect Israeli citizens from “terrorist explosives and other dangers.”

In light of these campus (and global) divisions, students are inundated with conflicting messages. With a situation as complex as the one between Israelis and Palestinians, students must do their best to educate themselves on how they envision not just a lasting peace, but also their stance on the conflict once it can become fully articulated.

The status of campus BDS campaigns nationwide remains variable. What remains constant, however, is that all sides are unwavering in their contention that BDS serves a symbolic purpose. As someone who has studied the Arab-Israeli conflict throughout college, I am fully aware of the importance of symbolism for many groups when they interpret their own histories.

Tuesday night’s proceedings during the CSG meeting have only cemented people’s desires to reclaim narratives of personal identity and nationhood. For those unfamiliar with the significance of BDS, this valuation is just too hard to comprehend.

Levi Teitel can be reached at lateitel@umich.edu.