by Mark Pattison
WASHINGTON (CNS) — In two cases in the past quarter-century, private means were used as a way to change U.S. foreign policy as well as the foreign country’s behavior.
In 1990, after a decade of intensifying private efforts in the United States and other countries to isolate South Africa economically and culturally from the rest of the world, the white-run apartheid regime finally cracked and set into motion a transition that allowed the overwhelmingly black country to elect leaders that reflected its demographics. Its first post-apartheid president was Nelson Mandela, who had been in a South African prison for 27 years for his struggle against apartheid.
And in 1998, after the MacBride Principles had been in effect for 14 years outlining fair-employment practices for U.S. companies in British-ruled Northern Ireland, the United States brokered the multiparty so-called Good Friday Agreement, allowing for greater self-government for the people of Northern Ireland and shared power between its Protestant majority and growing Catholic minority. The agreement took effect Dec. 2, 1999.
Now, for a decade or more, groups have been trying to persuade U.S. and European firms doing business in Israeli-controlled Palestinian territories to consider the cost of staying there.
The effort, aimed at changing Israeli actions in the territories, has been called BDS — shorthand for boycotts, divestment and sanctions.
Its efficacy has been questioned, as has its motivations. The size of the Jewish population in the United States rivals that of Israel, and there’s no unanimity even among Israeli Jews.
“I am attracted to partitioned countries, for an obvious reason,” said Redemptorist Father Sean McManus, born in Northern Ireland, and who worked with Irish Nobel laureate Sean MacBride in developing the MacBride Principles.
Father McManus used those principles to develop the Holy Land Principles, calling for fair employment practices for U.S. companies doing business in the Palestinian territories. Since he began his efforts in 2012, of the 543 U.S. firms he’s contacted, only one has signed on to the principles. This compares to 116 U.S. companies signing on to the MacBride Principles.
“We’re not in the slightest surprised by that. That’s how the companies react. I’m sure they’ll sign on,” Father McManus told Catholic News Service. “If 116 companies have signed the MacBride Principles, what are they saying now? That Catholics in Northern Ireland deserve equal treatment, but that Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians do not? They’ll have to answer to the world that question.”
One source of much discontent with Israel resides on college campuses, where student governments at both public and private universities pass legislation asking their boards of trustees to divest from U.S. companies with operations in Palestine.
Elyssa Feder, the senior Southeast campus organizer and director of Israel programs for J Street, which describes itself as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group based in Washington, says she understands where students are coming from, having gotten out of college herself less than four years ago.
“They’re frustrated,” Feder said. “They want to see change.” J Street, she added, supports a two-state solution to the ongoing and long-standing tension between Israel and Palestine, in which both lands can enjoy peace and security.
Feder said, though, that some groups backing BDS are “agnostic” on the right of Israel to be a country and others are hostile toward Israel, a stance some American Jews call “eliminationist” and “exterminationist.”
Her job is to go to campuses where she’s learned of proposed student government boycott resolutions to dissuade them. University boards of governors rarely act on such resolutions. “There are other levers to pull” to get the Israeli government to halt land grabs, separation-wall-building and settlement construction in Palestine.
Yet for some religious investment groups, divestment is the strategy when conversation with corporations doesn’t produce the desired result.
Katie McCloskey, director of social responsibility for United Church Funds, one investment arm of the United Church of Christ, said the denomination took a stand at its 2005 general synod to consider “different levels of economic sanctions that could be used to protest corporations involved in the Palestinian territories.”
“At that time we committed to using our strongest lever, which is shareholder engagement. Since that time, we’ve been involved with other denominations in getting companies that were targeted to change their ways — to really question what their products and operations were being used for in the Palestinian occupied territories,” she added. Caterpillar tractors, for example, might be used to uproot olive trees critical for producing olive oil for export.
But after a decade of limited results, the 2015 synod passed a new resolution calling for divestment, but this time it named names — Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard, G4S and Veolia Environmental — “until such time as these companies no longer profit from or are complicit in said human rights violations.”
“A few clients called to ask what we had done — and we have a thousand clients,” McCloskey said. But Veolia, a French firm, has gotten out of Palestine. McCloskey said the pressure exerted today is similar to the South African situation: “The companies that were most effectively engaged were those that would basically say the political risk, the reputational risk is so high, and the economic benefit that we’re deriving is not high enough so that we can be there.”
Dalit Baum, an Israeli-born Jew, does work similar to McCloskey in San Francisco for the American Friends Service Committee.
“Divestment is just the last, last tool in a long list of interventions that we recommend,” she told CNS. “It is taken when the company does not want to engage and does not want to budge, even though these companies have been engaged for a decade or more. Taking the public step of divestment will create a new standard for other companies in the industry.”
The Israeli government’s charge that divestment will lead to the ruin of the Israeli state is dismissed by Baum. “It’s a distraction from the issue. BDS is really not about Israel’s existence,” she said. J Street’s Feder concurs. “Israel needs an existential threat to its existence” to rouse its citizens, she said. “Last year Israel had said the Iran [nuclear] deal would lead to the end of Israel, and they lost” when the treaty was signed. “Now, BDS is the existential threat.”
“Even if they have the best of intentions,” Baum said, companies can become divestment targets through their complicity with the Israeli government. But three firms recently were recently removed from the American Friends Service Committee’s list, she noted. “Once in a while these tools have been successful in changing policy, to get corporations to stop producing in the settlements, to stop working with the Israeli military,” she added.
“The Palestinian situation is getting worse and worse. The Israeli government doesn’t show any tendency to go back to negotiations,” she added. “The youth violence is increasing. Israeli people, including Israeli Jews are sacred. Nonviolent tools [like BDS] are only targeting corporations and organizations that are involved in human rights violations or complicit in them.”