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Singling out Israel is the right thing to do—A Commentary by Yaman Salahi ’12

The following commentary was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on April 8, 2010.

Singling out Israel is the right thing to do
By Yaman Salahi ’12

Two weeks ago, UC Berkeley's student senate made a historic 16-4 decision to divest from General Electric and United Technologies, two American companies that profit from the Israeli occupation. A week later, the student body president vetoed the bill, citing its “focus on a specific country,” Israel. His veto echoed identical claims by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, that “in a world filled with human rights abuses across Africa, Asia and the Americas, the UC Berkeley students vote to single out Israel for censure is hypocritical.”

As the international movement calling for Palestinian freedom and urging boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel grows, this particular defense will likely become more pronounced. Thus, it merits a response so that its troubling implications for people who organize for justice and human rights can be cast aside once and for all. So: what does it mean to "single out Israel," and is it really “hypocritical” to do so?

Under one meaning, it is unclear how anyone could ever do, say, or think anything pertaining to Israel without necessarily "singling out" Israel. Anytime one talks about Israel one must, by definition, "single out" Israel -- whether cognitively or linguistically. In that sense, "singling out" means focusing in some way on its actions. For example, for decades the US Congress "singled out" Israel to receive the largest share of the United States' foreign aid budget, amounting over the past half-century to more than all aid to sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean combined. [1]

Under another meaning, the critic might be claiming that divestment "singles out" Israel unfairly. In order to assess that claim, one must look at the merits of criticisms toward Israeli policy to see if they are fair. What are these criticisms? Namely, that Israel repeatedly engages in gross violations of human rights and international law. The evidence for such claims comes from sources as numerous, varied, and reputable as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Committee on the Red Cross, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, B'Tselem, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights, Reporters Without Borders, the European Union, and finally, the United Nations General Assembly. In the face of such evidence, any claim that there is no basis on which to fairly "single out" Israel requires a remarkable amount of self-delusion or deliberate ignorance.

Under a third meaning, the critic could be saying that "singling out" Israel for criticism is unfair because while Israel is under scrutiny, other human rights violators are off the hook. But is it really true that those who report on Israel never hold other violators to task for their actions? In addition to extensive documentation of Israeli human rights abuses, every single organization above, without exception, has also documented and investigated claims about other parties. Some even have reports about nearly every country in the world. These organizations are not above criticism or scrutiny, but they also do not have reputations for dishonesty. While these organizations are routinely cited when discussing human rights violations in Darfur, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma, Russia, and China, just to name a few – it is only their criticism of Israel that is deemed “unfair,” “biased,” or “one-sided.” Who, then, is “singling out” Israel, and why?

There are certainly anti-Semites who criticize Israel because they are racist, but these marginal people simply do not characterize those organizations mentioned above, the Palestinian people, or those of us in the international movement to boycott Israel for its long-standing human rights abuses. Indeed, refusing to address fair claims because of the occasional unfair accuser removes the anti-Semites from the margins and sacrifices the entire system of rights and the majority who support it at their altar.

Under a final meaning, the critic could be claiming that "singling out" Israel for divestment is unfair, because divestment does not target every other country that also violates human rights. This argument is disingenuous. On its face, it appears to advocate for greater action on more human rights issues. In practice, however, it is deployed in order to silence those who would call for greater action in the face of Israeli war crimes and other violations of Palestinian rights under international law. Indeed, many of those who argue that divestment “singles out” Israel have no similar reservations when applying economic and political pressure to other countries and conflicts, such as Darfur.

As Naomi Klein has written, divestment is not a dogma: it's a tactic. Up against powerful state and corporate actors, civil society must focus its energies for collective actions such as boycott or divestment to succeed. Such was the case when companies that enabled the South African apartheid regime were targeted for divestment. A similar campaign succeeded regarding Darfur, and today another campaign is underway against Sri Lanka for its continuing oppression of the Tamil people. In all three cases those nations were or are singled out for divestment while at the same time other injustices loomed in the world. To do so made tactical sense while re-inforcing the principle that companies are legitimate targets for boycott and divestment wherever they are integral actors in a system of oppression. When all other measures fail, consumers and investors have one last recourse: to chose to spend and invest their money elsewhere. For many around the world, this is the best way to intervene against Israel’s systematized racism and oppression of the Palestinian people.

Those who believe that confronting Israel is unfair are themselves relying on an unacceptable double standard, "singling out" Israel, so to speak, as the one country expressly permitted to wantonly attack and persecute its minority citizens and subjects while the rest of the world passively watches. However, there can be only one universal standard of human rights. Privileging one state or actor over all others to remove it from accountability creates double standards that undermine the integrity of social justice activism all over the world. No one who chooses to engage in war crimes, colonization or human rights violations should expect the complicity of people around the world. Today, more than ever, is the time to single out Israel for criticism and boycott – not because it is the only purveyor of injustice in the world, or even necessarily the worst – but because no other international institution has succeeded in stopping the injustices against the Palestinians that continue to unfold before our eyes and in the full light of history.

[1] “In fact, from 1949 through 1997, the total of U.S. aid to all of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean combined was $64,127,500,000—considerably less than the $71,077,600,000 Israel received in the same 1949 through 1997 time period. According to the Population Reference Bureau of Washington, DC, in mid-1999 the sub-Saharan and Latin American and Caribbean countries have a combined population of 1.142 billion people, while Israel’s mid-1999 population is 6.1 million people.“ Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Yaman Salahi, a UC Berkeley alumnus and member of Students for Justice in Palestine, is currently a student at Yale Law School.