Testimony to the U of Michigan Student Government Ahead of Its Vote on BDS, Part II
On Nov. 15, 2016, as The Algemeiner reported, the University of Michigan (UM) student government considered a resolution endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. After hearing testimony on both sides, the student government resoundingly defeated the resolution, 33-14. The following is the second excerpt of UM Prof. Victor Lieberman’s remarks prior to the vote. (See the first excerpt here.)
University Divestment Policy says that divestment is possible only when all three of the following conditions are met:
I. The entity singled out for divestment must be uniquely responsible for the problem.
II. The behavior warranting divestment must violate moral and ethical norms such as those upheld by the university.
III. Support for divestment must express the broadly and consistently held position of the campus community.
In part I, we saw that no reasonable person could hold Israel alone responsible for the conflict with the Palestinians.
(1) Consider now the second requirement for divestment: It must be shown that Israel violates common ethical and moral norms, such as those upheld by the university and, we may assume, the world community in general.
(2) Like most Israelis and Americans, I believe that a two-state solution is the only fair way to settle the conflict.
But I fear that this view is not shared by the sponsors of this resolution — any more than it is by 70% of Palestinians or by the national leaders of the BDS movement against Israel.
(3) This resolution is merely a tactic in a much more ambitious campaign to demonize Israel, to wreck its economy, to intensify the conflict with all its potential for massive bloodshed and ultimately to destroy Israel. How do we know?
(a) The official handbook for campus divestment activists says: “Divestment [is] a stepping stone toward a broad, comprehensive boycott of Israel.”
(b) Omar Barghouti, co-founder of BDS has said: “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”
(c) BDS leader Asad Abu-khalil concurs, “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel.”
(4) To enlist sympathy, the sponsors of this resolution summon the two most radioactive words in world politics: “racism” and “apartheid.”
They claim that Israel, like the former South Africa, is a racist apartheid state.
(5) These images have no substance. BDS activists invoke these stereotypes not because they promote analysis, but because they choke analysis with raw emotion.
South African apartheid separated people on the basis of race, of genetic inheritance.
Within a single internationally recognized state, black people were denied political representation. They were systematically excluded from all white universities, all government and public institutions.
(6) But Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza are not part of a single internationally recognized state.
On the contrary, Palestinian leaders say they want an independent state, and Israel — in fact — would like nothing better than to separate completely from Gaza and the West Bank.
Peoples in these territories are not divided not on the basis of race. Rather, people are divided on the basis of citizenship. On one side, you have citizens of Israel, both Arabs and Jews. On the other side, you have would-be citizens of an entirely separate state, Palestine.
(7) Within Israel itself, Arab citizens enjoy exactly the same legal and civic rights as Jewish citizens:
* They vote, hold office, form their own political parties and enjoy complete freedom of speech and the press.
* The Arab Joint List party is now the third largest in the Knesset.
* Arabs serve on the Israeli Supreme Court… in the cabinet … in the army.
* They have full access to all public institutions and universities, and in fact benefit from affirmative action in university admissions.
* The Israeli government has embarked on a multi-billion-dollar program to improve education and infrastructure in Arab-majority areas.
* The thrust of government policy is not exclusion, but integration.
* 77% of Israeli Arabs say they’d rather live in Israel than an independent Palestine.
(8) To be sure, Israeli Arabs still suffer from various forms of legal and social discrimination.
(9) But, according to the most respected international survey of democracy and minority rights, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Israel is ranked #34, out of 167 countries. (Norway is best at #1, North Korea worst at #167.)
No other Middle Eastern state is ranked better than #57. And most, in fact, are ranked worse than #110.
The treatment of Arab Israelis is far better than that of Kurds in Turkey or Syria, Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Christians and Hindus in Pakistan, Muslims in Burma or the Philippines, ethnic and religious minorities in most African states, etc.
(10) So, if you’re going to divest on the basis of discrimination against minorities, at least 133 countries are in the queue of offenders ahead of Israel.
(11) The apartheid analogy fails for another fundamental reason:
By any conventional definition of race, Jews — unlike South African whites — are not a race. Anybody can become a Jew and, historically, all races have done so:
* Israel has 140,000 black Ethiopian Jews.
* 4000 African-American Jews have gone to live in Israel.
* 80,000 Indian Jews live in Israel.
* Almost half the Jews in Israel are from Arab countries and are physically indistinguishable from Palestinians.
(12) In other words, Jews are not a biological category, like whites in South Africa; they’re an ethnic and religious category.
This means that Israel is no different from some 80 other countries that define themselves in ethnic and/or religious terms and that grant special privileges to the religious or ethnic majority. In 35 countries, this includes an automatic right of return for members of the ethnic majority that is not available to minority groups.
But at the same time most of these states, like Israel, also strive to accord all residents civic and legal equality.
In other words, Israel’s policy on ethnicity and religion is not an exception to international norms. To the contrary, it conforms closely to those norms.
(13) Finally, briefly consider the claim that Israel violates international norms because its military actions are uniquely brutal.
I don’t have time to go into this, but I would point out that in fighting wars started by Hamas the IDF has killed 3,560 Palestinians, 50% of them civilians. These numbers are dwarfed by those of many other recent conflicts in the world, and I could give you 50 examples of state violence far more hideous than anything Israel’s worst enemies have even accused Israel of doing in their most lurid fantasies.
In warfare, civilians always suffer. But as the commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Col. Richard Kemp said, “The Israeli army has] done more to safeguard the rights of civilians in combat zones than any other army in the history of warfare.”
(14) Again, then, I ask: Why focus on Israel? Why should our student government single out Israel as the only one of 193 countries in the world worthy of divestment?
(15) By singling out only Israel for condemnation, this resolution abandons any pretense of impartial, objective, universal standards.
It targets only one country in the world — Israel — as a violator of international norms, when, in fact, among states facing serious security threats, Israel is one of the most restrained, democratic and responsible actors.
(16) No doubt other speakers tonight will tell stories of Israeli repression. But bear in mind:
* Not only are such claims often exaggerated, but they ignore the constant threat of terrorist attacks that Israel is trying to repress. Few other states face so constant a threat.
* According to the aforementioned Economist Democracy Index, fewer than nine percent of the world’s people live in a democracy. For much of the other 91% arbitrary arrest, torture, executions, censorship and repression are common.
* Within territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas — according to international rights organizations — 20% of political prisoners are tortured; dissidents are executed; censorship is unfettered; and dissent is crushed.
* I say nothing about repression, censorship and executions in Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Iran, Thailand, Burma, China, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, etc… and 100 other countries.
* Israel, by contrast, has no capital punishment, even for terrorists; habeas corpus is enforced; press freedom is respected; and the courts monitor IDF behavior.
* Moreover, American critics of Israel implicitly use America as their yardstick of normal behavior. But American experience has very limited relevance to the rest of the world. As Dorothy told her little dog Toto when they awoke in the Land of Oz, “We’re not in Kansas any more.”
(17) Israel is by no means a perfect democracy. The Economist Democracy Index rates it only as a “flawed democracy.”
But the same report shows Israel is the most democratic, law-bound, human-rights-observant state anywhere in the Mideast or North Africa.
And it is more democratic than 79% of the world’s countries.
In other words, Israel not only falls within international norms for acceptable behavior, it behaves better than 79% of the rest of the world.
Finally, this resolution violates criterion #3: Divestment requires a broad campus-wide consensus.
How do we measure support?
(a) Student bodies in some 20 American colleges and universities have passed a divestment resolution.
But this is a less than one half of one percent of colleges and universities. Over 99% have not; most never even entertained such a resolution.
Moreover, no college or university has ever acted on a student divestment resolution.
(b) Among American college-age kids, polls show 43% identify with Israel and 27% with Palestinians.
(c) I know of no University of Michigan polls. But the Central Student Government in previous years voted 3:1 and 2:1 against divestment.
(d) A university-wide petition against divestment recently collected over 5,800 signatures in just 48 hours.
(e) Clearly, the University community is fragmented and has long been fragmented. None of this suggests a broad stable consensus.
In short, not one of the three conditions needed to pass such a resolution have been met:
I. Israel is not primarily, let alone exclusively, responsible for the conflict.
II. Israeli policies fall well within international norms and in fact are better than most countries when judged by those standards.
III. On the University of Michigan campus, there is nothing like a consensus to support this resolution.
It is clear, then, that this BDS resolution must be rejected.