Bucking for change 

From the time he was born in a refugee camp 20 years ago, Carmel Salhi has been touched by the plight of Palestinians. Although he and his family moved to Dearborn from Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp when he was 3, the injustice he says is being done to Palestinians continues to be a central focus in his life.

“This is such an important issue to me for the simple fact that I don’t think the struggle for Palestinian self-determination or Palestinian human rights in general has yet to be addressed in this country,” he says.

Now a senior at the University of Michigan, Salhi is applying to graduate schools with the intent of obtaining advanced degrees in public health and international studies. His plan is to return to the Middle East as a health care worker. But he’s not waiting until that day comes to take action.

Salhi is a local leader in an effort that seeks to have universities, churches and municipalities use their investment portfolios as catalysts for political change by withdrawing financial support from corporations doing business with the Israeli military. Proponents believe that if this kind of economic pressure can be implemented, it can help end the military occupation of Palestinian lands taken in 1967.

This divestment movement began at the University of California, Berkeley, in February 2001, and spread to a number of other schools, including the U-M, Yale, Princeton, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 2002, Wayne State was the first American university to pass a student council divestment resolution. More recently, the student council of the U-M-Dearborn passed a resolution in February calling on the university’s Board of Regents to “create an advisory committee to investigate the moral and ethical implications of the University’s investments in companies which directly support and benefit from the ongoing illegal Israeli occupation.” That resolution named Raytheon, General Electric, United Technologies, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman as corporations that are “directly involved in the Israeli occupation and profit from many of Israel’s questionable policies in the occupied territories.”

There have been setbacks as well. At Michigan’s main campus in Ann Arbor, the Michigan Student Assembly voted 25 to 11 against a similar resolution on March 15. The student council session that evening twice moved to larger rooms to accomodate the massive number of students, faculty and administrators who watched and voiced their opinions on the emotionally charged issue.

This tactic of divestment has a notable precedent. It was used as a tool in the 1970s and ’80s to help bring down the South African system of racial segregation and white minority rule known as apartheid.

To date, however, no university has divested from these targeted companies. Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, who formerly led U-M, was one of several university leaders to take a strong stand against the tactic. Responding to a petition that compared alleged human rights abuses by Israel to South Africa, Bollinger in 2002 said the analogy is “both grotesque and offensive.”

Despite such opposition, the movement has spread beyond campuses. In July 2004, The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, which reportedly has an investment portfolio of $8 billion in holdings, overwhelmingly voted to divest from companies involved with the Israeli occupation. Before divestment occurs, however, attempts will be made to identify changes companies need to make, then provide them with an opportunity to alter their practices before a final decision on withdrawing funds from specific corporations.

In February, the World Council of Churches, a mainstream umbrella group that represents more than 500 million Protestant and Orthodox Christians worldwide, encouraged its member churches to divest from companies engaging in “illegal activities” in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The effort continues.

“From a legal perspective, I believe divestment is the most effective thing that can be done to address the issue of Israeli human rights abuses,” Palestinian human rights lawyer Sahar Francis said in an April speech to an audience of lawyers and peace activists at the Central Methodist Church of Detroit. “Israel will not change their policies unless they have this type of economic pressure on them. Look at the South Africa model; apartheid did not end until this pressure was felt. There are separate roads, bridges and detention centers for Palestinians, and an entirely different set of infrastructure and laws for Israelis — this is the definition of apartheid.”

Comparing Israel to South Africa is “totally absurd,” says Allan Gale, associate director of the Detroit Jewish Council,

“There is absolutely no commonality,” Gale says. “How can you compare an apartheid state to the only democracy in the Middle East?”

But some leaders of the South African anti-apartheid struggle see much in common between the Palestinian situation and the cause they championed.

Among the most vocal supporters of divestment from companies that support the Israeli occupation is South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid in South Africa. He has written numerous articles supporting the current divestment movement. In a 2002 Counterpunch article, he wrote:

“These tactics are not the only parallels to the struggle against apartheid. Yesterday’s South African township dwellers can tell you about today’s life in the occupied territories. To travel only blocks in his own homeland, a grandfather waits on the whim of a teenage soldier. More than an emergency is needed to get to a hospital; less than a crime earns a trip to jail. The lucky ones have a permit to leave their squalor to work in Israel’s cities, but their luck runs out when security closes all checkpoints, paralyzing an entire people. The indignities, dependence and anger are all too familiar.”

There is another parallel as well. The apartheid divestment movement took years before gaining traction, beginning with resolutions passed by student groups and city councils that, as they mounted, drew increasing attention to the ultimately successful struggle of black South Africans.

One significant difference between the current movement and its predecessor is that there were no prominent Afrikaner interest groups in the U.S. to counter anti-apartheid activists. Jewish groups in the U.S., however, are high-profile and highly effective.

Gale believes the divestment movement is essentially a publicity stunt to exploit a misunderstanding of the situation in the Middle East. That’s not the only problem he sees with the effort.

“The timing of the current divestment resolutions is wrong,” Gale says. “We are seeing improved relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Divestment is a tool of economic pressure at a time when people are putting down tools and weapons and getting back to negotiations.” Gale also says that divestment could actually hurt Palestinians more than Israelis because both economies are so closely linked.

Salhi and his fellow activists aren’t buying those arguments.

“Oftentimes the issue of the Palestinian refugees also gets cut out of all discussions,” Salhi says. “Palestinian refugees have a right to the land. That is why it is called the right of return. It is not a suggestion of return; it is a right. Only after the issue of the refugees is addressed can there actually be any sustained peace.”

Braden Ruddy is a Metro Times intern. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com or phone

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