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July 16, 2013;Fox News
What is the relevance to U.S. nonprofits of an announcement by the Israeli government that it intends to approve the construction of 1,071 new homes in six Jewish settlements in the West Bank? The Israeli NGO Peace Now called these plans “an unprecedented wave” of promoting Jewish settlements in the ostensibly Palestinian West Bank, constituting “yet another message by Israel to the US and the Palestinians that this government is not ready for peace.” Many people might see this announcement as an event half a world away, part of a deep-seated controversy that never seems to end between two intransigent population groups.
But there is a much more direct and immediate implication for U.S. nonprofits. A number of U.S. religious and nonprofit groups are pursuing a campaign to divest from Israeli companies or at least from companies that are supporting the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. In the 1970s and 1980s, a divestment campaign aimed at South Africa’s apartheid policies helped contribute to the undoing of that racially repugnant policy, eventually leading to the overthrow of apartheid and the freeing of Nelson Mandela. The divestment movement was so powerful that Congress even passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 and overrode President Reagan’s veto. Divestment pressures on Israel are predicated in a way on the theory that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are themselves a form of apartheid toward Palestinians.
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For some activists, the targets are simply companies that have invested in the West Bank. For example, at least nine conferences of United Methodists have announced divestment plans targeting companies such as Caterpillar, Motorola, Hewlett Packard, and General Electric. According to one statement on the decision, “As United Methodists learn about Israel’s land confiscation, home demolitions, and the segregated systems of transportation, water, and laws that discriminate against Christians and Muslims, there is a strong sense that the church must act.”
Because of her position in favor of divestment from companies that are “committing human rights violations in the Palestinian territories,” Pakistani-American student Sadia Saifuddin faced vigorous opposition to her election as a student regent in the University of California system, including charges that her position was akin to anti-Semitism.
Opponents of the divestment movement, or, as it is generally known, the BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) movement, suggest that the real purpose of the effort is to slander and delegitimize Israel by comparing it to apartheid South Africa. There are many indications that the BDS movement does extend its concern beyond companies doing business in the West Bank to companies simply doing business with the Israeli military or, even more broadly, working in or with Israel. (Witness the BDS criticism of singer Alicia Keys for her recent performance in Tel Aviv.) The new CEO of the Jewish campus life organization Hillel, former Democratic congressman Eric Fingerhut, has said that he will strongly pursue the group’s “Standards of Partnership,” which call for it to oppose organizations that “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”
Whatever one thinks of the settlements, the prospect of a two-state solution, or the military policies of the Israeli government, the divestment movement is gaining traction, and that has implications for U.S. and European nonprofits. For example, the European Union recently announced a policy against “any funding, cooperation, awarding of scholarships, research funds or prizes to anyone residing in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem,” despite the fact that the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. Although Alicia Keys performed in Israel, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking withdrew from a conference in Israel on the advice of Palestinian academic colleagues, earning himself a tongue-lashing from former Harvard University president Larry Summers. Nonprofits might find themselves pressured not to partner with the charitable-giving arms of corporations identified as supporting West Bank settlements, such as Motorola (described on a BDS site as providing surveillance and communications systems for the settlements) and Caterpillar (charged with providing armored bulldozers for demolishing Palestinian homes). Other partners might find themselves pressured to divest from Israeli companies, such as the TIAA-CREF pension fund’s decision to divest from the Israeli company SodaStream, the home carbonated drink maker that operates from a West Bank settlement, following a decision by TIAA-CREF to drop Caterpillar from its portfolio.
The slogan “think globally, act locally” is often given an environmental or ecological frame; in business terms, it means operating with both local and global considerations. For nonprofits, it might mean at some point evaluating the policies of other countries, determining which corporate or philanthropic partners might have stakes in those policies, and consciously choosing to boycott or divest as a means of producing policy change.—Rick Cohen