Tuesday, November 12, 2002

The campaign to get universities to divest themselves of Israeli investments is heating up; both supporters and opponents are comparing it to the South Africa divestment campaign of the 1980's. And both sides are more right than they realize.

Of course, Israel is nothing like South Africa was. It's a full democracy with a universal franchise, not at all like the apartheid regime. It has recently engaged in a multi-year process of trying to set up the territories it occupies (as a result of a war provoked by legitimate casus belli) as an independent state, being stymied only by the refusal of the prospective government of that state to abandon terrorism against Israelis. Its own citizens are neither racially segregated nor otherwise politically oppressed, and have the full range of democratic freedoms, including speech and religion.

But then, South Africa wasn't a particularly obvious choice of target, either. It was hardly the worst human rights abuser of the era, even on its own continent. Opponents of the boycott routinely pointed out that South African Blacks were better off than they would have been in just about any other country in Africa, and the boycott itself caused no small amount of suffering among them. If one were to choose a political evil to target in the 1980's based on moral and humanitarian considerations, Apartheid would have been a legitimate but relatively minor choice, paling by comparison with literally dozens of others.

But that's the dirty little secret of politically motivated boycotts: they are not primarily chosen on the strength of their justifications or the urgency of their goals. Rather, their adherents participate in the hope of making a political point in some other, entirely separate context. The South African boycott, in truth, was about many things--race relations in the US, Cold War geopolitics in the Third World, and anti-corporate populism, to name three--but the actual conditions of non-White South Africans were at best peripheral. Likewise, today's university divestment campaigns have many motivations--"anti-globalist" leftism, anti-Americanism, even, on the fringes, some anti-Semitism--but sincere concern for the plight of the Palestinians (for the vast majority of whom the Oslo process has been an unmitigated disaster that a boycott of Israel would likely only further exacerbate) can't be very high on the list. It is fortunate that some major academic leaders are seeing through the sophistries and rejecting the divestment movement's meretricious moral case.

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