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Activists launch campaign for divestment
"Making the issue real"

June 28, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

SUPPORTERS OF Palestinian rights are organizing for divestment--pressuring companies and institutions to cut their ties to Israel's apartheid system.

RANIA MASRI is a human rights and peace activist and a director at the Institute for Southern Studies. SNEHAL SHINGAVI is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of California-Berkeley. YUSEF KHALIL is involved in pro-Palestinian organizing at Columbia University.

They spoke with Socialist Worker about building divestment campaigns when they came to Chicago to attend Socialism 2002.

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Rania
There's a reason that boycotting Caterpillar can work--whereas boycotting Lockheed Martin wouldn't work because Lockheed Martin is in the business of weaponry.

Caterpillar doesn't need to sell bulldozers to Israel because that's only a small proportion of its profits. Caterpillar largely depends on farmers. If Caterpillar knows that its name is getting tarnished, it will perceive that to be of greater importance than the profits it might gain from selling bulldozers to Israel.

Israeli officials will certainly wage their own PR campaign, but our side has a strong case. There's something about destroying an olive tree that's very moving and awful--you're destroying someone's whole livelihood.

We can build a public campaign around this--even in places like North Carolina. When you walk into our airport in North Carolina, there's a big sign saying, "Caterpillar welcomes you." What's that doing there? We can make posters of a Caterpillar demolishing a home with the words, "Caterpillar welcomes you."

So we're asking our universities and city councils to stop investing in Caterpillar--which is a very common stock to invest in. If we present these pictures, no one can provide a legitimate justification. No one can tell you, "I don't mind supporting a company that demolishes people's homes."

Whether we get the university to divest or not, we've won, because we've presented the issue in a way that makes it real to people's lives.

When we simply talk about apartheid in Palestine, people can say, "Oh, yeah, that's bad." But when I say that North Carolina State University is using our taxpayer money and our tuition money to invest in apartheid, people say, "I can do something about it."

It changes the whole focus and brings people so much closer to Palestine. It makes it a campus issue. And at the same time, it makes it possible to talk about the effects of that kind of investment on our local communities.

If we can get them to divest, that would be huge. But let's be realistic about this. The divestment movement against apartheid in South Africa didn't take place in one year or five years. It was a process that spanned two decades. And it was slow and cumbersome, but it worked.

They had a few advantages that we don't have, and we have a few advantages that they didn't have. But it worked.

This is a long-term process with both short- and long-term benefits.

Snehal
United Parcel Service is one of our divestment targets at UC-Berkeley.

UPS is one of the largest courier services to Israel that brings products to and from U.S. and Israeli businesses. If Teamsters at UPS go on strike this summer, it would be good to raise a slogan like, "UPS should invest in its workers, not in Israeli apartheid."

The reason I say this is that we've got find ways to inject the issue of Palestine into the labor movement--by taking solidarity with the labor movement very seriously and by taking up the real concerns and questions that workers face.

A large part of the divestment campaign hinges on the high-tech sector, which in the Bay Area has been hit by massive layoffs. In this climate, we can connect with workers by showing that these companies don't care at all about their workers, and they don't care about what their investments in Israel do to Palestinians. We can and should link these points together.

It will be much harder for U.S. workers who see pro-Palestinian activists on their picket lines supporting their strike to be anti-Palestinian later--when they also recognize that the pro-Israel side isn't supporting their right to strike and their claim to better wages.

It's a natural conclusion that people will draw.

Rania
The AFL-CIO has a 50-year history of ties to Israeli unions. Israeli unions have been much smarter than we've been, although we're the traditional allies of workers here in the U.S.

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney spoke at the April pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C. When I confronted one of the leading AFL-CIO members in Wisconsin about it, he said he was very upset about that.

It reminded me of two things. First, the executive leadership of the AFL-CIO supports Israel, and if we want the AFL-CIO to change its position, we've got to start at the bottom and get resolutions passed through local unions. If you work with any organizations affiliated with the AFL-CIO, think about how you can do that.

The second point is that we need to recognize who our traditional allies are--who are the real progressive forces? In North Carolina, the Black Workers for Justice support our cause. Groups like that can be great allies.

Snehal
Other corporations that we focus on at Berkeley are General Electric, Hewlett Packard and Raytheon.

General Electric because it helps to manufacture the propulsion systems on the Apache helicopter and the F-16 fighters that Israel uses. Hewlett Packard because it has a laboratory at Technion--the Israel Institute of Technology--that it uses to help develop applications that are used in Israel's high-tech weaponry. And Raytheon because it's the main supplier of missiles to Israel, especially Patriot missiles.

There's a corporate connection to not only the economic superiority of Israel compared to its neighboring countries, but also its military superiority. This is enabled by the U.S. military contracts that are provided at much cheaper rates than to other countries, and with much fewer restrictions.

Israel is the only country that's been allowed to take these kinds of investments and develop them into its own domestic arms production industry. It takes F-16s and upgrades them with technology that it has.

These companies have a longstanding history. General Electric, for instance, has been given awards by the Ministry of Finance for 50 years of successful partnership with the state of Israel--because of its contributions to the Israeli military.

Yusef
At Columbia University, one of the targets we're considering is Citibank.

One, there already has been a movement around Citibank by Students for Socially Responsible Investing because of Citibank's destructive practices such as ravaging rainforests in South America. Two, a lot of universities--especially Columbia--have a very close relationship with Citibank. We have a Citibank branch right on campus. So it's a very easy target, people can see it every day.

And Citibank as a target also connects with people in the neighborhood. Columbia is buying up nearby buildings and evicting people to build exclusive schools for children of faculty--right in the middle of Morningside Heights, which borders Harlem, where there's a real need for schools and better facilities for residents. Citibank is right there, and people can connect with it.

Hewlett Packard, Raytheon and other firms directly involved in military research and production are also easy targets and connect with people's sense of basic fairness.

We don't want our tuition dollars to be used to fund this military occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. Through that, it also connects to the struggle of graduate students trying to unionize at Columbia and raises that whole question of the university being run as a business.

Just like many other schools, these aren't bastions of education, but it's all about the bottom line.

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