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Israelis in Non-Israeli Universities
ASSAF ORON (University of Washington) urges the Presbyterians to Escalate their "Divestment from Israel Process"

 
http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/21133
 

(Monday, October 10, 2005)

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"Regarding the American Jewish community: they are the most successful and powerful community in Jewish history, but they will forever feel
vulnerable - as if the Holocaust may happen again any day. Fear drives all this community's actions regarding Israel. A Jewish peace activist recently wrote about how in many congregations, the people are afraid of speaking out because of their right-wing rabbi, and the same rabbi is afraid to speak out because of his right-wing congregation. In many ways, it is the Jewish spokespeople confronting you who are doubly out of touch – from the Jewish public's true opinions, and surely from Israeli and Palestinian reality. So be patient with them, but don't let them force their fears upon you."


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Thanks for inviting me here. Just to make sure my looks and style don't mislead you:

I'm 39 years old, going on 40 soon. My mini-talk will have 3 parts.

Before starting I'd like to join my panel colleague Rabbi Laytner in urging the church to consider "selective investment" in Israel/Palestine besides divestment. I've been involved in grassroots joint collaboration efforts between Israelis and West Bank Palestinians. In fact, your invitation to me here was accompanied (per my request) with a donation to one of these efforts (via www.cirr.org). So in a modest way, you have already started this "selective investment". However, in contrast to Rabbi Laytner, I do not rule out divestment. My personal opinion on divestment is not so relevant (as will be explained below); but I do think this type of steps should be considered by international civil society in order to end the Occupation regime.

I tried to find out on the web what all this is about, and boy are you guys in over your head. Seems like the entire American Jewish community is up in arms against you.

You're being called Anti-Semites, idiots, and everything in between. Your leadership is labeled as a bunch of out-of-touch radicals, as opposed to the common-sense rank and file members. In short, you're on the right track. Welcome to the club.

Two and a half years ago, just before the Iraq invasion, I was a teaching assistant for Israel's language and culture at University of Washington. At the end of one course, I spoke for 10 minutes warning students that things back home are very bad, blaming my government and army staff for it, and calling students to join humanitarian efforts. A week later, the Seattle branch of ADL (an organization set up to combat Anti-Semitism) sent a letter to the Near East department, demanding to dismiss me from my job. In 21st century America, an Israeli criticizing his own government is a grave Anti-Semitic incident.

So again, welcome to the club. This kind of struggle can never be easy. Ending official segregation in the South wasn't easy either. When Martin Luther King was still alive, the mainstream press called him a 'radical Negro'. More about this comparison later.

[ Now you may wonder, what kind of Israeli you've got here: "a radical, nonrepresentative one?" Well voices like mine are not heard much. Just like American anti-war voices were not heard in the mainstream media until Cindy Sheehan came along. But in fact the anti-war stand reflects the American majority. I'd lie if I told you I represent Israel's majority, but most of my perceptions are shared by a much wider public than you'd imagine. And just like in the American case, as time goes by more and more previously-hidden evidence turn up to support our stand. The major difference between me and 80% of my compatriots, is that out of
frustration and selfpreservation they have disengaged from politics and chosen passivity, while I found I cannot remain passive anymore. ]

Regarding the American Jewish community: they are the most successful and powerful community in Jewish history, but they will forever feel
vulnerable - as if the Holocaust may happen again any day. Fear drives all this community's actions regarding Israel. A Jewish peace activist recently wrote about how in many congregations, the people are afraid of speaking out because of their right-wing rabbi, and the same rabbi is afraid to speak out because of his right-wing congregation. In many ways, it is the Jewish spokespeople confronting you who are doubly out of touch – from the Jewish public's true opinions, and surely from Israeli and Palestinian reality. So be patient with them, but don't let them force their fears upon you.

Before moving on to the second part, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I don't know whether any specific divestment decision you take will be correct or effective. But I thank you for deciding to become effectively involved as citizens. Armies and governments have failed us. Please don't leave us at their mercy. If divestment falls through, you must find some other way to be involved. If you don't, it means you've given up on my country_

Ok, to business. From what I've read, it seems your church is well-versed in conscientious divestment and is pretty consistent about it. If one thinks of the divestment process as a court-like process, then the defense advocates are now arguing to throw the case out on procedural matters. They're arguing that you have no reason to hear the case, and besides you have no jurisdiction. This is what I read into the arguments: "why pick on Israel and not on Sudan? Why pick on Israel when the US is in Iraq?" etc.

At the most fundamental level this entire set of arguments is irrelevant. Your church is an independent and sovereign actor, which tries to avoid placing its money in hands that turn killing and oppression into profits. Recently you've decided to become more prudent regarding violence in Israel-Palestine, and recognized both Occupation and Terror as things you don't want any involvement in. Jewish organizations may disagree with you, but they have no right to impose their views on you, and certainly not to intimidate you into backing off.

This answer, though valid, ignores the obvious political implications of your move – being a large mainline church. So let me say a few words on "why pick on Israel":

First, If Israel wants to be compared to (say) Sudan, then it should be willing to have Sudan's standard of living, international connections and level of financial support.

You can't have the cake and eat it at the same time (well, in fact we've been doing it for many years, but it gave us rotten teeth and a
bellyache…). Second, this is not just Israel's business. Israel was set up as a direct result of a UN resolution, and its troubles have necessitated world intervention again and again. Israel's conflicts are chronic ignition points for much larger international frictions. Finally, Israel receives such a level of financial and political support from the US, that for most practical purposes we are an unofficial 51st state. Americans have a say in Israel's Occupation, just like Yankees had a say in Southern segregation – simply because you are the silent partners funding and enabling the Occupation. So you have double jurisdiction, as world and US citizens – and a clear motive to act.

There is one counter-argument which I do find relevant, and it is "the US is in Iraq too". I noticed your church is already trying hard to refrain from military investment.

So perhaps now's a good time to update your list with a few Halliburtons and Blackwaters – in other words, treat companies that benefit from the American Occupation of Iraq like you treat companies that benefit from Israel's Occupation.

A different argument used to dissuade you is, "why spoil things now, when they're finally going well with the Gaza disengagement and all?" For two generations we've been carried on waves of false hopes given by this or that politician. And time after time we've been let down. In May 2003, at the height of the "mission accomplished" euphoria, I participated in a panel on Israel. I gave my usual line: that politicians should not be trusted to resolve this, and that people need to get directly involved on both humanitarian and political levels. My colleague, a truly moderate rabbi, was brimming with optimism because the Middle East Roadmap had just been launched.

He said "I'm not a Bush fan, but who knows – maybe he's the one who'll finally bring us our peace". Two years passed and we've seen what Bush has brought the region. Now the new messiah is Ariel Sharon.

I agree that dismantling the Gaza settlement project, after 35 years of subsidized existence, was a step in the right direction. But like the Corries just reminded us, as recently as a few months ago IDF D-9's were still razing Gaza homes and fields.

What for? And how does this reflect upon the much larger endeavor of West Bank settlements, which Sharon continues to expand, and which Americans continue to fund? Is world opinion supposed to passively wait until governments see the light? No. We need civil society's intervention.

One word regarding the mention of Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust: the Holocaust is a trauma that is still far from healing, and therefore will spring up again and again whenever you touch the subject of Israel. But it is precisely due to the Holocaust that the world supported so
overwhelmingly to let a Jewish minority of mostly new immigrants, set up their own state in the middle of an Arab region. And now the world community has a moral debt towards both Jews and Palestinians, and must keep intervening until things are set right.

Last part. So what is my role in your court-like process? I can't be jury, I belong to the defendant's family so my personal judgment call about divestment is irrelevant.

Making that call is up to someone from the outside – such as you. I can serve as an expert witness, providing valuable and reliable information. This is what the Israeli group Yesh Gvul just did. They provided British and Palestinian human-rights activists with high-quality legal information that convinced a British judge to issue an arrest warrant against an Israeli general, chasing that general out of Britain. The best information I have for you right now is related to Caterpillar and Motorola. Since the Corries provided information about Caterpillar, I'll just add some of my personal knowledge and then move on to Motorola which is a more typical case. My military profession is combat engineering – these are the units that own D-9's.

The most common misconception is that D-9's used by the IDF are your common yellow earth-movers operated by some neutral contractor. They're not. They're more like a tank with bulldozing equipment instead of a cannon. The IDF weaponizes D-9's by adding bullet-proof windows and armor plates, and turns them into camouflaged combat military vehicles_ D-9's are actually meant to be used in combat – plowing roads through minefields and similar combat-related jobs. D-9's are way slower than tanks, but these 60-ton monsters are also way more durable and resistant to almost any attack.

So an IDF D-9 is a combat tool, and is operated by a soldier as part of a combat engineering unit. It is not reasonable to believe that Caterpillar doesn't know its D-9's get weaponized. Caterpillar are not some
12-year-old sweatshop worker who doesn't know where the garment she's sewing will go to. IDF Units I served in have worked with weaponized D-9's since the 1980's. So according to your church's guidelines, that alone may be reason to divest from Caterpillar, though I'm not familiar enough with these guidelines to make a judgment call on that.

Caterpillar may claim that weaponized D-9's have a relatively "clean" military purpose. However, the way the IDF has been using them against Palestinians is far removed from their original purpose. What IDF D-9's do nowadays is mostly demolish Palestinian civilian homes and agricultural land – as indeed was detailed by the Corries. And it is no secret that this is happening. You can look up the Btselem website
http://www.btselem.org/English/Razing_ for more details. Israel's former chief of staff, General Ya'alon, went on record saying that D-9's have been a "strategic weapon" during the second Intifadah.

[Moreover, at least during the spring 2002 re-occupation of Palestinian cities, D-9's were even used as combat weapons per se. IDF D-9's decided the battle of the Jenin refugee camp - by razing the center of the camp after IDF infantry failed to conquer it. In a revealing interview
published on Israel's largest-circulation daily, a reserve D-9 operator boasted of demolishing the entire center of the camp almost
single-handedly, without caring whether there are people in buildings or not, and all the while constantly drinking whiskey. Though he was an extreme case, the fact remains that no one in charge intervened to put an end to his actions; the entire D-9 unit participating in that battle was awarded a military decoration. The interview's English transcript is available on http://www.gush-shalom.org/archives/kurdi_eng.html. Urban combat use of D-9's has caused several confirmed civilian deaths in Jenin and Nablus.]

If I have a couple more minutes, I'd like to turn attention to Motorola – which in many ways is more central to the Occupation's mindset. Not about the military branch of Motorola's activities, but about its civilian role as majority owner of Israel's first cellular phone company. And the specific details don't matter as much as the general pattern.

Israel's cellular companies freely set up antennae and other
infrastructure in the West Bank – to serve settlers and the military. They also sell service to Palestinians. There is a Palestinian cellular company named Jawwal. In the past five years, the IDF has destroyed some of Jawwal's antennae, and prevents it from setting up antennae in certain regions. Moreover, all of Jawwal's imports are controlled by Israel, which sometimes decides that a certain technology is "too dangerous" to let Palestinians have it. This dual civilian-military pressure makes Jawwal phones extremely limited in their usefulness. West Bank Palestinians, who rely heavily upon cellular phones, are forced to use Israeli companies as well. But they're usually forced to use pre-paid phones at exorbitant rates. I myself have helped recharge the phone of a Palestinian friend who couldn't afford paying for his calls anymore – at over twice the rate I was paying at that time as a regular customer.

This type of economic control and exploitation extends through all walks of life. It is totally transparent to common Israelis and Americans – but Palestinians feel it on a daily basis, and believe me, Israel's government and business leaders know it all too well. They will seek to retain this control at all costs, because it is a huge hidden contribution to Israel's wealth. The real drama of Gaza's evacuation did NOT happen last month in front of hundreds of reporters. It is happening right now away from the world's attention. Our government was forced to evacuate the Gaza-Egypt border in order to claim that it's not responsible for Gaza anymore. But it seeks to retain indirect control of this border with Egypt's
cooperation. Last Monday, as soon as the last Israeli soldier left, thousands of Palestinians streamed across the border that divides the town of Rafah into two parts, and turned the control attempts into a joke.

My government isn't giving up: it has since been relentlessly pressuring Egypt, the Palestinian authority and the rest of the world to stop this 'outrage', seal the border and return Gaza to its former status as a huge prison. But Palestinian residents are not giving up either, and continue defying the Egyptian police.

Those Palestinians who've been to the Egyptian side – for most of them, the first-ever taste of true freedom – were shocked to see how cheap things are over there. For many years Gaza residents and businesses have received all their supplies from the outside world only through Israeli controls, at ridiculously inflated costs and under arbitrarily delayed timelines. Gaza does have a chance to succeed economically, but only if it is freed from Israeli control and opened to the outside world. Then, much more quickly than anyone expects, its people may turn from hungry
day-laborers begging to be allowed into Israel, to wealthy farmers and entrepreneurs employing Egyptian labor, and exporting to the entire Middle East and beyond. Israel's ruling elite will do all it can to prevent this transition. You'll hear plenty of Israeli scare-talk about weapons smuggling, rockets and explosives – but the real story is economic domination and control.

A control in which, at present, we are all silent partners.

Thank you.

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* Based on a talk in a panel at Seattle Wedgwood Presbyterian, given September 17, 2005

 

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