Sometime in March (and as soon as March 1), students at the University of Minnesota will be asked to consider a resolution brought by the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine, urging the university to divest financially from corporations which, the sponsors assert, “directly profit from human rights violations” perpetrated by the Israeli government against Palestinians.
As described by its sponsors, the divestment resolution is part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global effort to bring pressure on the government of Israel.
So how should students at the university, and others with deep interests in this issue, consider this matter?
To be sure, it is hard to argue that Israel is not responsible for serious violations of the rights of Palestinians, especially in the context of an occupation that has resulted in loss of land, restrictions on freedom of movement and denial of political rights. And public pressure is a time-tested means of encouraging governments around the world to modify policies, especially for those governments that take seriously their human rights obligations.
My own experiences reflect my belief in the value of such advocacy. As a student at New York University School of Law some 35 years ago, I initiated a high-profile letter of protest from more than 100 Jewish law students at NYU, Harvard and Yale law schools, objecting to Israel’s large-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1982, as well as settlement activity in the occupied territories. And while that effort was not enthusiastically received by the government of Israel, I believed then, as I do now, that public pressure is critically important in moving governments on basic rights issues.
More recently, in my former role as assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, I witnessed the deprivations suffered by Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as those involving African migrants in Israel. And, although in that role most of my human rights advocacy was through private diplomacy, I deeply valued the work and public advocacy of groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
So if public pressure is an appropriate tool of persuasion, why am I so strongly opposed to this effort to encourage university officials to divest from companies that do business with Israel? And why do I hope so fervently that the students at the university will reject this measure?
My opposition stems from my strong belief in the right of the Jewish people to live securely in a Jewish and democratic state, as part of a two-state solution that recognizes the rights of the Palestinian people and addresses their legitimate and long-held grievances. This position, which reflects the perspectives of the vast majority of Americans and of governments around the world, also offers the best prospects for the rights and well-being of all the region’s inhabitants. Thus, Americans should be prepared to support a wide variety of diplomatic and other measures designed to achieve this objective.
My deep concern is that this goal is put at risk by the BDS movement of which the university students’ divestment effort is a part. This is because the BDS movement makes no distinction between opposition to the policies of the government of Israel — in the occupied territories and elsewhere — and opposition to Israel’s very existence. Statements of BDS leaders and materials the movement has generated clearly challenge the legitimacy of the concept of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state that can live in peace with its neighbors and with a Palestinian state.
I certainly understand that perspective, and always welcome the chance to discuss and debate proponents of this position. Yet I respectfully but strongly reject it, and firmly believe that continued efforts to realize the de-legitimation of Israel will inevitably poison the environment for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, lead to more violence and seriously harm the interests of both groups.
That would be an awful outcome, which this unfortunate resolution would promote. I hope it is rejected by the students at the university, even as I look forward to supporting common efforts of all members of our community to support progress toward a Middle East peace.
Eric P. Schwartz is dean and professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and serves on the board of directors of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas and HIAS, the Jewish Community’s refugee assistance organization. He is also a member of the Advisory Council of J Street. The views expressed here are his own.