Op-Ed: To fight white supremacy, support divestment

Monday, November 13, 2017 - 4:11pm

For too long, Palestinian students at the University of Michigan have had to pay tuition to a university that invests in oppression and violence against their own people. Their #UMDivest campaign calls upon the University to stop investing in companies that supply weapons and equipment used by Israel to violate Palestinian human rights. We, students and community members with the University’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, are proud to fully endorse the 2017 #UMDivest campaign.

Jewish Voice for Peace is a national Jewish organization committed to achieving a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on equality, human rights and freedom. We support the Palestinian movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it stops violating Palestinian rights. As was the case with apartheid in South Africa, we know that supporting peace and coexistence means taking action against violence and segregation — not just empty talk.

Unfortunately, opponents of divestment are attempting to derail the conversation, calling #UMDivest divisive, and placing it in the context of an “already polarized and emotional post-election time in our country and on our campus.” The implication is that divestment is associated with rising bigotry both on campus and nationally following the election of Donald Trump — in spite of the fact that the divestment movement is led and widely supported by students of color, all of whom are directly threatened by Trump and the far right.

While taking pains to avoid any actual discussion of the facts, opponents claim divestment is “one-sided.” (Was divestment from apartheid South Africa “one-sided?”) And without saying so plainly, they imply that divestment targets Jewish students. For this reason, we say clearly: We are Jewish and we support divestment.

Supporters of Israel often say it represents Jewish self-determination. In the context of rising anti-Semitism following Trump’s election, it’s worth examining whether Israel’s record lives up to this claim.

Trump is undoubtedly responsible for increasing anti-Semitism in America, using anti-Semitic imagery in his campaign and appointing known anti-Semites like Steve Bannon to his cabinet. One would hope that Israel, a state claiming to represent all Jews, would name and confront this bigot. Instead, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said there is no “greater supporter of the Jewish people” than Trump and insisted that Trump is not anti-Semitic. Netanyahu also praised Trump's plan to build a wall, reciprocating Trump's praise of the wall Israel has built in the West Bank.

Following the election, major pro-Israel organizations in the United States congratulated Trump, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Jewish Committee. They were silent about Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, ignoring outcry from the American Jewish community. The Zionist Organization of America has even invited Bannon, now for two years in a row, to speak at its annual gala.

For their part, “alt-right” bigots including Richard Spencer have praised Israel, and people such as Spencer describe it as his ideal “ethno-state”: a state that’s exclusively for one people. Extreme right-wingers in the United States and Europe frequently express support for Israel, support that is sometimes reciprocated, to hide their anti-Semitic bigotry.

But they don’t just use pro-Israel positions to cover their hatred of Jews: Israel and the far right share common values. Beyond its apartheid regime against Palestinians, Israel has seen race riots against East African asylum-seekers, incited by Israeli politicians and accompanied by anti-African policies. It has carried out systematic forced sterilization  of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants. Israel’s Mizrahi Jews, who originate from the Middle East, live as second-class citizens, even as they’re granted more rights than Palestinians.

This is not Jewish self-determination. It’s white supremacy. And while we face the growing threat of real anti-Semitism from white supremacists in the United States, mainstream Jewish leaders are asleep at the wheel. Confusing the Israeli state with Jewish self-determination, they confuse representing Israel with Jewish leadership. They attack the Palestinian movement for human rights and equality, and repress Jews who support it, while largely ignoring or even enabling the far right.

#UMDivest is a movement for human rights and equality. Its only demand is for the University of Michigan to stop investing in multinational corporations that provide weapons and equipment used in the violations of Palestinian rights. Its leaders and supporters, many students of color, are on the front lines in the fight against racism. For opponents of divestment to say this movement opposing bigotry and violence “divides” or somehow contributes to a hostile climate on campus is utterly false and frankly disgraceful. And with real anti-Semitism on the rise, these false implications are incredibly dangerous.

Jewish Voice for Peace will continue to support the movement for Palestinian human rights. We will continue to oppose white supremacy in all its forms, wherever it rears its head. And as long as Israel and its supporters attempt to use our identities to deny Palestinian rights, we will continue to say: You do not speak for us.

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