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Punishing Israel, Giving a Free Pass to the U.S.: What's Wrong with the U.S. Student Movement's Priorities?

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The large poster on the U.C.L.A. campus read "Israel: the Politics of Genocide," and featured a picture of a young woman, scarf on her head, holding a shotgun, with the caption: The Right of Return, Free Palestine. The poster was part of Palestine Awareness Week sponsored at universities around the country-- UCLA's was in February of this year-- by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)

Now that a new academic year is underway, we can expect many more similar posters, and many calls for universities to divest from companies doing business with West Bank Israelis.

As a former student and then faculty activist deeply involved in efforts to end the war in Vietnam, as a citizen who has participated in virtually every major protest against the wars in Iraq, and Afghanistan, I don't get it.

Yes, Israel has committed many unjust acts including: Israel's retaliation for Hamas's attacks on Israel, led to the tragic killing of approximately 700 Gaza civilians; the Israeli blockade of Gaza is causing severe and unnecessary suffering to the people of Gaza; the Israeli West Bank settlements, are unjust and have led to much hardship and unnecessary Palestinian deaths; the Israelis are guilty of unnecessarily killing nine people on the Gaza bound May, 2010 Flotilla.

But compared to the suffering that the U.S. has inflicted on Iraq and Afghanistan, the suffering inflicted by Israel is miniscule. According to the lowest estimates, our invasion led to 100,000 Iraqis killed, and 2 million fleeing their homes and becoming refugees. Approximately 4,500 American soldiers have been killed, many more severely wounded, both physically and mentally. In Afghanistan, we have already lost over 1200 soldiers, and killed thousands of Afghan civilians.

So why has so much of the student left's energy and activity focused on divestment from companies involved in the occupation of the West Bank while ignoring companies involved in our murderous wars? Why haven't these students been pressuring universities to divest from Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, CACI and Titan, all heavily involved in the Iraq war, the latter two accused of torture and abuse of detainees at Abu Graib?

What about the 52 licensed private firms in Afghanistan? Some are publicly held. Why haven't any left wing student groups looked into pressuring their universities to divest from them?

When I raised these questions with Israel divestment activists, it was clear this had never occurred to them, and made them uncomfortable. My attempts at dialogue met with rejection.

It seems that since Obama became president, many on the left are focusing even more on Israel, and less on U.S. foreign policy.

A June 28 article in The Nation entitled, "The Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement," provides a sense of how large and intense this movement is on campuses. A very partial calendar of events includes:

In February 2009, thanks to Students for Justice in Palestine's intense and ongoing pressure, Hampshire became the first college to divest from companies involved in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The board of trustees saw to it that this divestment became part of a broader socially responsible investment policy.

The day after Hampshire's SJP's success, the University of Rochester's Students for a Democratic Society organized a Campus Sit-in against Israeli Occupation, and occupied a university building.

In November 2009, student leaders from more that forty campuses around the country participated in a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement organizing conference sponsored by Hampshire College's SJP.

In March 2010, the U.C. Berkeley Student Senate held two all night sessions, attended by 900 people, to debate a proposal urging university divestment from two companies profiting from the occupation of the Palestinian territories.Previously, about 6,000 students, faculty, and staff had signed a petition supporting divestment. The pro divestment vote was vetoed by the student body president.

U.C.S.D, Georgetown University, Evergreen College are among those where students have attempted to get the student senate to vote for divestment. So far some like Evergreen have been successful; others continue their efforts.

More generally, petitions urging divestment are being circulated at about 50 universities.

How did punishing Israel become such a priority for so many left-wing American student groups when our own country has inflicted so much suffering on so many?

And how did the thinking of these groups become so uncritical that they apparently support not only divestment, but the entire agenda of the BDS campaign started by Palestinian non-governmental organizations in 2005.

BDS's program includes a cultural boycott, and a boycott of all Israeli products--even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is opposed to this.

One of the three stated goals of BDS. is "the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in the 1948 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194." At the time, approximately 750,000 Palestinians had fled Israel. Now 62 years later, the population of the West Bank and Gaza is estimated at approximately 4 million. Of that population 3.7% are over 65 in the West Bank, and 2.6% are over 65 in Gaza . The Palestinians who demand the right to return are almost all the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of those who left in 1948. About 40% of Palestinians are 14 years old or younger.

It is unlikely that any significant number of the well integrated 2 million Palestinians living in Jordan (which occupies 70% of Palestine) would be interested in moving to Israel. But Israel would probably look good to the 400,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon for more than forty years. In spite of August 2010 legislation granting them a few more rights, they still cannot own property, or enter professions, and still do not enjoy any of the social and medical services granted to Lebanese citizens--and enjoyed by Israeli Arabs.

I cannot help but wonder if any of the student, church, and other groups that support BDS have ever thought about what the return of over 4 million people--or even half or a third of that number-- would mean. Would entire towns built on the site of 1948 Arab villages have to be destroyed? What about properties that are inhabited by the 100,000 Palestinians who stayed in Israel, and now number over 1,5 million-- would they also have to give up their homes to the children, grand children, and great grand children of the people who lived there in '48?

Some on the left claim that no one takes the Palestinian right of return seriously; it's really about financial compensation. But in a recent TV interview Omar Barghouti, a founder of BDS, referring to the three injustices that would have to be corrected before the boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning of Israel could be stopped, stated "foremost is its [Israel's] denial of the right of return for the refugees, Palestinian refugees, in accordance with UN Resolution 194."

Calls for divestment and other forms of action to counter crimes against humanity in foreign countries are laudable. But surely there needs to be some prioritizing. With at least 200,000 people killed and more than 2.7 million refugees, the Sudan divestment movement was and continues to be sorely needed. Millions killed, millions of refugees, and rampant rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo cry out for international action.

But as U.S. citizens don't we have a moral obligation to call for the same type of divestments and actions to end the suffering inflicted by our own government?

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