If you haven’t heard about it, you haven’t been paying attention, and believe me, I am truly jealous of you.
But if you do know about it, you know it’s controversial. The Second National Student Conference on the Palestine Solidarity Movement is coming to the University from Oct. 12-14 – happily over fall break. From here on out I’ll call it by what it is (the long and sloppy official name is just for show anyway), the Divestment Conference. If you disagree with my inference, tell the organizers – you can find their contact info at www.divestmentconference.com.
What you can’t find in the mission statement at divestmentconference.com, however, is a single mention of the word “peace.”
This conference has already received a slight nod from the national media; it was mentioned in, among other outlets, last week’s issue of Time. When it happens, people will pay attention.
Argument about whether a conference like this should be allowed to take place at this University is silly and irrelevant; it’s going to happen. It should. We should be happy to have it here; we should be especially happy to have a thriving Hillel and a vibrant Jewish community that can organize a wonderful and intellectual schedule of events in reaction to it. If there’s going to be dialogue, let it happen at Michigan. Let it happen at a school where everyone has an opinion and there is a means to express it.
The concept of divestment itself is not inherently anti-Semitic (we all know that anti-Semitic means anti-Jewish, so let’s not start any useless semantic debate). We divested from South Africa, yes, and the idea of divesting from Israel is on the table so, again, yes – let’s talk about it. The problem with divestment is when the concept ceases to exist individually. Divestment is a means of economic pressure – in South Africa, economic pressure was a tool for political change. When it comes to Israel, however, divestment advocates’ motives become suspicious when they don’t see divestment as being about economics, but instead about the permanent destruction and vilification of a country. Their motives become suspicious when not one speaker at a conference about divestment is addressing economics.
The framework of this upcoming conference comes with exactly the kind of nasty baggage that people (take Larry Summers, the president of Harvard or the Anti-Defamation League, for example) have been worried about.
Some of those who are organizing the conference are truly engaging, intellectual and compassionate activists. However, whether these people are aware of it, there is language in the conference’s mission statement that is ugly and wrong. The conference “condemns the racism and discrimination inherent in Zionism.” Herein lays the problem. If racism and discrimination are inherent in – inextricable from – Zionism, an elementary transitive approach could reconfigure this statement to say that the conference condemns Zionism. Merriam Webster defines Zionism as “An international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel.” Condemnation of Zionism is general condemnation of the State of Israel. And once again, whether the organizers know it, the connection here to anti-Semitism is not so abstract, not so far-fetched.
If this conference is about anti-Zionism, then, it’s also not about ending the occupation. The occupation should end. A lot of Israelis, a lot of Jews (the two groups are not the same) agree. If this conference is about anti-Zionism, it’s about reversing the “Naqba,” it’s about not wanting there to be a State of Israel at all. To some, then, of the organizers, – I assure you not all – this conference is not even about divestment. They know that the University is not going to divest.
The conference is, instead, intended to shift the set of assumptions that the common person not so up on the politics of the Middle East has. When someone presents me with the statement “Israel is apartheid; we should divest,” it’s easy for me to miss that there are two components of this statement that I need to challenge. I’ll consider whether we should divest, but now I’ll simply assume that the situation in Israel is comparable to apartheid. My internal suppositions will have therefore adjusted through textbook rhetorical strategy. You have to hand it to these people; it’s a pretty smart strategy.
“Divestment may be only a fall fad on college campuses, but it’s political nitroglycerin,” wrote John Alter in his Oct. 7 Newsweek column. He believes that it undermines work toward a two-state solution. I agree with him. Maybe I’ll be less cynical when I see a divestment conference talking about – just to stay in the neighborhood – the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Or maybe I’ll be less cynical when the word “peace” finally appears on that website.
Johanna Hanink can be reached at email@example.com.