Israel: Time to Divest
by Desmond Tutu
New Internationalist magazine,
January / February 2003
Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu
calls for international campaigners to treat Israel as they treated
apartheid South Africa.
The end of apartheid stands as one of
the crowning accomplishments of the past century, but we would
not have succeeded without the help of international pressure
- in particular the divestment movement of the 1980s. Over the
past eight months a similar movement has taken shape, this time
aiming at an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories
captured during the 1967 military campaign.
Divestment from apartheid South Africa
was fought by ordinary people at the grassroots. Faith-based leaders
informed their followers, union members pressured their companies'
stockholders and consumers questioned their store owners. Students
played an especially important role by compelling universities
to change their investment portfolios. Eventually, institutions
pulled the financial plug and the South African Government thought
twice about its policies.
Similar moral and financial pressures
on Israel are being mustered one person at a time. Students on
more than 40 US campuses are demanding a review of university
investments in Israeli companies as well as in firms doing major
business in Israel. From Berkeley to Ann Arbor, city councils
have debated municipal divestment measures.
These tactics are not the only parallels
to the struggle against apartheid. Yesterday's South African township
dwellers can tell you about today's life in the Occupied Territories.
To travel only blocks in his own homeland, a grandfather waits
on the whim of a teenage soldier. More than an emergency is needed
to get to a hospital; less than a crime earns a trip to jail.
The lucky ones have a permit to leave their squalor to work in
Israel's cities, but their luck runs out when security closes
all checkpoints, paralyzing an entire people. The indignities,
dependence and anger are all too familiar.
Many South Africans are beginning to recognize
the parallels to what we went through. Ronnie Kasrils and Max
Ozinsky, two Jewish heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle, recently
published a letter titled 'Not in My Name'. Signed by several
hundred other prominent Jewish South Africans, the letter drew
an explicit analogy between apartheid and current Israeli policies.
Mark Mathabane and Nelson Mandela have also pointed out the relevance
of the South African experience.
To criticize the occupation is not to
overlook Israel's unique strengths, just as protesting the Vietnam
War did not imply ignoring the distinct freedoms and humanitarian
accomplishments of the United States. In a region where repressive
governments and unjust policies are the norm, Israel is certainly
more democratic than its neighbours. This does not make dismantling
the settlements any less a priority. Divestment from apartheid
South Africa was certainly no less justified because there was
repression elsewhere on the African continent. Aggression is no
more palatable in the hands of a democratic power. Territorial
ambition is equally illegal whether it occurs in slow motion,
as with the Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories, or in
blitzkrieg fashion, as with the Iraqi tanks in Kuwait. The United
States has a distinct responsibility to intervene in atrocities
committed by its client states, and since Israel is the single
largest recipient of US arms and foreign aid, an end to the occupation
should be a top concern of all Americans.
Almost instinctively, the Jewish people
have always been on the side of the voiceless. In their history,
there is painful memory of massive roundups, house demolitions
and collective punishment. In their scripture, there is acute
empathy for the disfranchised. The occupation represents a dangerous
and selective amnesia of the persecution from which these traditions
Not everyone has forgotten, including
some within the military. The growing Israeli refusenik movement
evokes the small anti-conscription drive that helped turn the
tide in apartheid South Africa. Several hundred decorated Israeli
officers have refused to perform military service in the Occupied
Territories. Those not already in prison have taken their message
on the road to US synagogues and campuses, rightly arguing that
Israel needs security, but that it will never have it as an occupying
power. More than 35 new settlements have been constructed on these
captured lands in the past year. Each one is a step away from
the safety deserved by the Israelis, and two steps away from the
justice owed to the Palestinians.
If apartheid ended, so can the occupation.
But the moral force and international pressure will have to be
just as determined. The current divestment effort is the first,
though certainly not the only, necessary move in that direction.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work against apartheid. He wrote
this piece in collaboration with lan Urbina who works at the Middle
East Research and Information Project (MERIP) in Washington, DC.