Letter to the Editor: To divest from Israel is to invest in ignorance

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Occidental made the correct decision not to divest from companies that do business in Israel, denying the request of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Occidental College. This decision ensures that a glaring double standard and an incomplete portrayal of Israeli-Palestinian affairs do not compromise Occidental’s investment policy.

In its Feb. 10 letter to the editor, SJP’s Occidental chapter said the college should divest from Israel on the basis of human rights — a noble cause indeed. Over the millennia, many groups have controlled what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories, including the Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Ottomans, British, Jordanians and, currently, the Israelis and the Palestinian National Authority. It is time that the Palestinians have complete self-determination and a sovereign nation alongside a Jewish State of Israel. However, SJP chapters exploit the public’s lack of knowledge of Israeli-Palestinian affairs in order to administer a bogus political purity test that is sure to elicit its desired response: either you oppose Israel or you oppose human rights.

Occidental SJP uses terms like “colonialism,” “pinkwashing,” “anti-Blackness,” “Islamophobia” and “social justice” to attract progressive student organizations to their cause. However, most of their allegations are either false, misleading or out of context. For instance, Occidental SJP’s argument for divestment included the misleading characterization that Israel is withholding the COVID-19 vaccine from Palestinians in the West Bank. Yet, per the Oslo Accord signed in 1993, the Palestinian Authority — not Israel — administers healthcare in the West Bank; and, the Jerusalem Post reported months ago that the Palestinian Ministry of Health planned to receive the vaccine from other sources — again, not Israel.

The unreasonably intense level of anti-Israel discourse on many college campuses and the regular use of incendiary language to describe the Jewish state would give any casual observer the impression that Israel is the most oppressive and violent nation in the world. However, the facts contradict such a notion. Human rights indices regularly rank Israel in the middle tier of nations — above Israel’s neighbors as well as many other countries that Occidental is indirectly invested in, such as China, Russia, India and Mexico. Occidental, like other institutions, has financial portfolios that cover a wide range of investments in companies that operate around the world. Divesting from companies that do business in Israel, but not from companies that do business in nations with worse human rights records, would create a dangerous double standard against a nation with fewer than 10 million residents (smaller than Los Angeles County), which “just happens to be” the only Jewish state in more than 1,800 years. Even the United Nations (UN) has compromised its credibility on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Between 2015 and 2020, Israel received nearly three times more UN condemnations than the rest of the world combined. It is obvious that Israel has become the scapegoat for all of the world’s problems.

A bedrock of SJP is its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for individuals and institutions to boycott Israeli products, divest from companies that do business in Israel and advocate for government sanctions on Israel. Since BDS describes itself as a movement rather than an organization, SJP — the world’s most visible anti-Israel student group — operates as the principal organization promulgating BDS policies on college and university campuses. Occidental SJP claims that BDS policies only target the Israeli government — not residents of Israel — but wreaking havoc on a nation’s economy will primarily hurt its residents. Just look at Iran, a country on which many progressives oppose sanctions due to their effect on the Iranian people. In this case, such a policy would also hurt the nearly 100,000 Palestinians in the West Bank who earn a living in Israel and count on the Israeli economy to support their families.

According to a Jewish Journal contributor who attended a 2014 event hosted by SJP’s UCLA chapter, BDS movement co-founder Omar Barghouti asserted that Jews are not a people with any right to self-determination. Thus, it is no surprise that SJP’s national organization and the BDS movement are officially silent on whether they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as supporting the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would acknowledge the rights of Jews to a homeland. Additionally, considering the policies that SJP chapters and BDS support, plus the chant commonly heard at SJP and BDS protests — “from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea, Palestine will be free” — it is obvious what these two groups view as their de facto solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the elimination of the world’s only Jewish state.

I have never seen the kind of hate and vitriol that exists in the anti-Israel orbit being directed at any other nation. In four years at Occidental, I heard more rhetoric critical of Israel than rhetoric critical of China’s treatment (reportedly genocide) of Uyghur Muslims, Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, and Mexico’s widespread use of torture — combined. I never heard of students advocating an academic boycott of China, an economic boycott of Saudi Arabia or a cultural boycott of Mexico: only Israel. Occidental SJP suggests that Israel should be expelled from various international forums including the UN, which is ironic because anti-Israel groups count on the UN to normalize their anti-Israel hysteria.

SJP’s and BDS’s goal of demonizing and othering Israel is eerily reminiscent of the treatment faced historically by the very people who call Israel their homeland. At the very least, SJP chapters have a blind spot when it comes to anti-Semitism. Even if some of their policies are not intentionally anti-Semitic, many have anti-Semitic effects. Also, Occidental SJP’s glossary definition of anti-Semitism excludes any mention of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, focusing entirely on European and Christian manifestations instead. It does not take a Ph.D. to know that anti-Semitism is alive and well in the Arab world. In fact, studies from the Anti-Defamation League suggest that 74 percent of individuals in the Middle East and North Africa and nearly 50 percent of Muslims worldwide express anti-Semitic beliefs, which is more than twice the rate of anti-Semitism in Europe and more than twice the rate among Christians, respectively.

Of course, there are members of SJP and supporters of BDS who simply joined in the desire to uphold Palestinian human rights. I support that cause and welcome criticism of the Israeli government, just as I would of any other nation. Also, I cannot assert that every member of SJP is anti-Semitic for their support of BDS, particularly those members who are unaware of the movement’s implications. However, members of SJP and advocates of BDS are complicit in anti-Semitism by standing with a movement that harbors anti-Semites, traffics in anti-Semitic tropes, and does not even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation. If someone were to assert that the world’s 50 Muslim-majority nations do not have the right to exist, progressives would label that person racist and Islamophobic. It is only fair that the world’s only Jewish state receives the same treatment in the court of public opinion.

In its literature, Occidental SJP acknowledges that the BDS movement does not claim its organizers are experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At least we can agree on that. I applaud Occidental’s Board of Trustees for disallowing this flawed and bigoted ideology from dictating administration policy.

Sincerely,

Ethan Matanyahu Reznik, Class of 2020