PROTEST AGAINST ISRAEL, BUT DO NOT DIVEST

Critics of Israelís policies toward the Palestinians have come up with a new idea that is really an old idea. They want U.S. universities to sell off their investments in Israeli businesses and in companies that do business in Israel. It is NOT a good idea.

This divestment strategy was an important part of the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. But Israel in 2002 is not South Africa in 1988. Israeli policies do impose harsh repression and suffering on the Palestinians. But not all oppression is the same.

Divestment makes sense when you believe that the oppressors will never be persuaded to see the error of their ways. It is a sign that you have given up on appealing to their conscience. It is a tool of coercion.

Thatís why divestment made sense for South Africa. White South Africa was overwhelmingly determined to maintain apartheid at any cost. The whites had to be shown that the cost could in fact get too high. There was no other way to bring about change.

It is too early to give up on Israel. There, a fierce battle is raging between supporters and opponents of the Sharon governmentís hard-line policies. More and more Israelis, and Jews around the world, see that Sharonís policies are bankrupt. They can never bring the peace and security that Israelis want so badly. There is a real chance that Israelís voters could choose more moderate leaders, who will negotiate a reasonable resolution to the conflict. No guarantee, for sure, but a real chance.

The best thing that devotees of peace can do is to support the Israelis who want to vote Sharon out and peace in. Divestment would have absolutely the opposite effect. Hereís why:

Israeli elections depend on the undecided swing vote, the 20% or so who could go either way. When those centrist feel relatively secure, they vote for more moderate peace-oriented candidates. When they feel threatened by outside forces, they easily fall into an "us vs. the gentiles" mentality. Then they are easy prey for the Likud partyís right-wing rhetoric: "The whole world hates us. We can depend only on ourselves. The gentiles understand only strength. We must fight back."

The divestment campaign is sure to increase the swing votersí fears. No matter how moral the campaignís motives are, Likud politicians will use it as "evidence" that the world is turning anti-Semitic. And the centrist voters will believe them. Like it or not, thatís the way Israeli public opinion works.

The divestment campaign is a way of saying that the Israelis and their Jewish supporters around the world are beyond hope, that they have lost their moral compass. I am not ready to say that. There are many thousands of us actively opposing Israelís current policies, and several million who know that those policies are wrong. Such numbers offer real hope that the Jewish compass will swing back to a more ethically responsible direction.

It is also worth remembering that divestment is a very blunt instrument. It hurts the innocent as much as the guilty. If Israelís economy falters seriously, the most dedicated doves there will suffer just as much as the most militant hawks. But the worst suffering will hit the Palestinians, both in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza. They are at the bottom of the economic ladder, and thatís where a faltering economy always strikes worst.

Divestment should be kept in the repertoire of political activism. If the CU Regents really believe that their investment portfolio is political neutral, as they claim, they are fooling themselves. But divestment is a tool that must be used in the right place at the right time.

Israel is not the right place, and this is not the right time. Supporters of peace and Palestinian rights have a wealth of other tools that they are already using. Now is certainly the time to use those tools more vigorously. Jews, and others, must speak out, even at the risk of being smeared as anti-Semitic. We must talk to everyone who will listen. We must write to everyone we can. We must organize and march in the streets. The injustices being perpetrated every day on the Palestinians demand nothing less than our greatest efforts.

But we must not let our emotions overrule our reasoned judgment.