NEW YORK, Sept. 4 (JTA) — Equating Israel to apartheid South Africa, pro-Palestinian student activists hope to launch a campaign across the United States this fall urging universities to divest from companies that do business in the Jewish state.
Most Jewish leaders, who bristle at the comparison, are skeptical that such a movement would spur universities to change their financial holdings or even attract anywhere near the kind of support that was seen in the 1980s for the anti-apartheid movement.
However, the campaign comes just after nongovernmental organizations at a U.N. conference in South Africa denounced Israel as a “racist” and “apartheid” state — and when American Jewish students are not particularly well-educated about Israel or prepared to defend it.
Pro-Palestinian groups plan to kick off the campaign with a national conference Oct. 12-14 at the University of California at Berkeley, tentatively called “Holding the University Accountable: Divesting From Israeli Apartheid.”
Sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine, a Berkeley organization, the conference’s other supporters include the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and SUSTAIN: Stop U.S. Taxpayer Assistance to Israel Now.
Organizers hope to attract up to 500 students from universities throughout the United States.
Michel Shehadeh, West Coast regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who will be a speaker at the Berkeley conference, said the divestment campaign’s “ultimate goal” is to “end Israeli racism against the Palestinian people and democratize Israel so it would become a real democracy. It’s a democracy for Jews only right now.”
Israel, Shehadeh claimed, is “worse than apartheid.”
The conference follows efforts last spring to convince the University of California to divest.
At a Berkeley protest in April that coincided with the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, pro-Palestinian students demanded that the university’s Board of Regents divest $5.5 billion, which, it claimed, goes toward companies involved in Israel.
Regents at the university, which in 1985 divested from companies doing business in South Africa, haven’t discussed divesting from Israel and have no plans to do so in the near future, according to a spokesman.
Adam Weisberg, executive director of Berkeley’s Hillel, was quoted this spring in the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California as saying that while any comparison between the Arab campaign and the one directed against apartheid South Africa is “completely fallacious,” it is “a powerful analogy because the students aren’t shown a lot of information.”
“They hear ‘apartheid,’ which they know is a terrible thing, and think, Well, Israel practices it, therefore I should support divestment,” he said.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the idea of divestment was also raised last year at the University of Michigan, but didn’t gain momentum.
Richard Joel, international president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, predicts that the divestment effort “will fall on its face.”
“There are all kinds of complex issues in the Israel-Palestinian situation that people can disagree on,” he said. “Divestiture is not one of them. To me, this whole divestment idea is as obscene as saying Zionism equals racism.”
Combating such a campaign, Joel said, “is one that it’s pretty easy to equip Jewish students to feel passionate about, because it’s not about protecting the rights of Palestinians or moving to create a Palestinian state,” but a “direct assault on the legitimacy of a Jewish state.”
Jeffrey Ross, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of campus/higher education affairs, said the divestment campaign “deserves to be watched” but that there is no reason to assume it will imitate the success of the South Africa campaign of the 1980s.
“The divestment movement about South Africa was a uniting thing on campus, whereas anti-Israel activity on campus is divisive,” he said.
Protesting apartheid South Africa, he said, “was a thing everyone could be for, and there was no perceived downside. It was a very politically correct cause, and appropriately so.”
Rhetorical links between Israel and apartheid South Africa are not new, but had been largely absent during the 1990s peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
In the mid-1980s, amid national efforts pressing for universities to divest from businesses involved in South Africa, several Arab groups and activists exaggerated the levels of trade and cooperation between Israel and South Africa, according to Yossi Abramowitz, author of “Jews, Zionism and South Africa,” a 1986 monograph published by Hillel.
At a Berkeley divestment rally in 1985, a Palestinian speaker denounced Zionism, and many people held posters featuring an Israeli flag and South African flag, with the words “Stop Zionism and Racism.”
In 1985, the University of California at Davis’ anti-apartheid coalition required Jewish students who wanted to join to denounce Israel and Zionism and to support U.N. Resolution 3379 declaring Zionism to be a form of racism, according to Abramowitz’s book.
Now CEO of Jewish Family and Life, a nonprofit Jewish media company, Abramowitz said he is deeply concerned about the potential of a divestment campaign, as well as other anti-Israel campus activism.
Jewish students are not being given enough information or training, Abramowitz said, adding “I don’t think the Israeli government or the American Jewish community has figured out what’s their message.”
“We have the ability to pre-anticipate what the issues are going to be through the year, and you want to be able to hit hard and early and publicly to take a position of peace in the Middle East, an end to violence in the Middle East and be prepared for these kinds of divestment and related tactics,” he said. “I’m just not overly confident that the students or the organizations that serve students are ready and able to do this.”
Indeed, at the Israel Advocacy Day during an August conference for Jewish student leaders, many participants said they don’t feel they have the knowledge or conviction to defend Israel on campus, and some even criticized the program for being too pro-Israel.
Even in California’s Bay Area, where anti-Israel protests were loudest last year and where the divestment conference is to be held, Jewish organizations appear unprepared for the coming year’s attacks against Israel.
The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California recently reported that local Jewish student organizations have not yet planned pro-Israel campus activities for this semester.
“If the Palestinian groups are going to be demonstrating, I think we’d rather wait and see what the nature of it is before we plan anything,” a University of California at Davis student told the paper.