Some will remember the commotion a few weeks back surrounding a resolution proposed to our student government that would have the university divest from American companies who profit from internationally recognized human rights abuses when their technology is used by Israel to subdue the Palestinian population. With the resolution’s defeat, I propose we consider some of the arguments used to attack the resolution and understand how the nature of the Israel/Palestine debate has been poorly framed.
One position central to the resolution’s opponents holds as a central contention is that conscientious opposition to Israel’s actions necessarily isolates and stigmatizes Jewish students, perhaps implicating them in Israel’s human rights abuses. This position reinforces, albeit indirectly, the tired and troubled conflation of anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism. It bears reiterating that the Jewish faith as such is completely separable from Zionism, which is known to us today as the dominant ideology of the state of Israel and is used to legitimate an apartheid status quo where the allotment of greater rights to Jewish citizens, as opposed to non-Jewish citizens, is the law of the land. Proponents of divestment are critical of Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. To conflate their position with anti-Semitism is lazy and unethical.
Expanding upon the argument that Jewish students would feel stigmatized under the resolution, it is helpful to remember the Islamophobia that characterizes American society today.
To draw on a topical example, consider the Boston Marathon bombings. The New York Times published an article Friday morning that was meant to break the news of the firefight that preceded the elder Tsarnaev’s death and the subsequent manhunt for the younger Tsarnaev, but, before telling of the event itself (the who, what, when, where and why that constitute the mainstay of objective reporting), the editors chose to sketch the political and religious history of Chechnya. The intent of this, if not the effect, is to associate the Tsarnaevs with “fundamentalist Islam” independent of any hard evidence, other than national origin.
To make the connection, it appears as if anyone who commits an act of violence in the United States and also happens to be a Muslim is assumed to be a fundamentalist, an extremist, a terrorist, etc. The objection of the Jewish students is, as I understand it, similar insofar as it is based in the fear that Jewish students will be associated with the human rights abuses of Israel by virtue of their identity as Jews, and thus ostracized, much the same way America is largely associating the Tsarnaev brothers with “fundamentalist Islam” by virtue of their identity as Muslims.
Moving to another argument, the suggestion that Israel is unfairly singled out for its human rights abuses, while other states are not, fails to take into account the cozy relationship between the U.S. and Israel today (with over $3 billion in “aid” given to Israel by the U.S. annually) and Israel’s unique position as perhaps the settler colonial society/agent of Western hegemony (and here being familiar with the political and economic nature of early 20th century Zionism and Zionism as it has evolved after World War II in light of the Cold War and Arab Nationalism is key).
The level of support that Israel receives, and has received historically from the western powers, is embodied, at least in part, in today’s world by the use of technology developed by American companies, and this is indicative of the extent to which the playing field is not presently level and the university in particular assumes a distinctly nonneutral posture. In the 1940s, Israel received military support from the West, support that contributed to Israel’s dominance in the initial war and ethnic cleansing that resulted in the creation of Israel as a state. Today, Israel receives all the latest American military technology, which is used, as we were reminded in November, to destroy Palestinian property and kill Palestinian civilians. The current imbalance in the situation is clear. Thus, when opponents of the resolution suggest that the truly “neutral” thing to do would be to reject divestment so as to appear to favor both sides equally, they neglect the extent to which our community already stands behind Israel.
The implicit message of the argument that Israel does not deserve to be singled out and that the university must maintain a supposed position of neutrality is that Israel’s actions are justified (or at least that opposition to Israel’s actions is unjustified) given the injustice that takes place elsewhere in the world, and the failure to recognize Israel’s crimes in this way is disheartening. While it is pleasing to witness and contribute to what I take to be the rejuvenation of UCSB’s political realm, the decision of the Senate to reject the resolution represents a gross misreading of the nature of the dollar as a form of speech in American political life (a point that cannot be illustrated fully, for want of space) as well as the true nature of the situation in Palestine today, and the nature of the U.S. position and the University of California’s position, vis-à-vis Israel.
Michael Dean is a fourth-year political science major.