Boycotts and Divestment: A Means to Peace or a Reason for a Rift?

The U.S. Presbyterian church is voting on whether refraining from doing business with some Israelis is the best course of action.

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Divestment from companies "profiting from the Israeli occupation" is but one of several topics being discussed this week at the biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Twenty-one assembly committees are dealing with topics ranging from gay marriage to catechism questions, and each one is preparing to report on its decisions and make recommendations.

Jewish activists on all sides have their eyes on one particular issue. Committee 15 is focusing on "Middle East and Peacekeeping." Actually, it's heatedly debating the issue. There is a call, from those on one side, to divest from three big companies doing business with Israel. But church leaders are concerned that could cause a rift with the entire American Jewish community, and part of the Christian community.

Still, on Tuesday, the committee voted 36-11 (with one abstention ) in support of divestment from Motorola Solutions (for providing surveillance equipment for Israeli settlements ), Caterpillar (for providing bulldozers used for demolishing Palestinian houses ), and Hewlett-Packard (for selling hardware used by Israel in its naval blockade of Gaza ).

Two years ago the divestment issue didn't pass even the committee level. This year, despite pleas from the Jewish community, religious leaders and organizations, including the left-leaning lobby J Street, to reject what they termed a "counterproductive path," divestment might actually pass the General Assembly vote.

Another committee voted (37-6, with two abstentions ) to boycott Hadiklaim dates and Ahava cosmetics, because they are made in the settlements. And there were some young Jews who cheered that decision. Rae Abileah, co-director of the pacifist organization CODEPINK and member of Jewish Voice for Peace, said "Thank you Presbyterians for following God's teaching, You shall not steal, in passing this overture. As a Jew, I support this interfaith work for peace and justice."

Should Israel fear the divestment of the two million member church? The question is less about the actual economic impact of the decision; Caterpillar, HP and Motorola Solutions will no doubt survive, and participants of Pastor John Hagee's "Christians United for Israel" will probably be happy to purchase some Ahava products when they gather in Washington, DC this month. But the concern is that the actions of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement will start to be considered the norm in the United States, as it is in some parts of Europe, and even for some members of the Jewish community.

The morning after the Committee 15 vote, I received a letter from an Israeli scientist living in Pittsburgh for the last 10 years. "I have been involved with several peace and human rights groups and most recently came to the realization that supporting targeted divestment has become in some ways unavoidable," he wrote. He also asserted that the position of members of the Jewish community "is not as clear-cut as the [Jewish] Federation tries to paint," and that there is pressure on J Street national leadership from the "more progressive" local chapters who support BDS.

Dr. Nahida Halaby Gordon, moderator of the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus, told Haaretz that she believes there is a good chance the vote will pass this. "Sometimes the plenary votes contrary to the vote in the committee, but the numbers in the committee vote in favor of the divestment were high. The committee members seemed to be more knowledgeable than the last time. They understood that divestment is a well-proven process that can produce results.

"They really agonized over alienating their Jewish friends and partners. That was one of the biggest things they were worried about, but when it came to the vote, they decided that true friendship means that you can criticize with love, and it is not intended to demonize or delegitimize either Israel or Jewish community in this country. I am 72 years old, I grew up in Jerusalem, and we got along fine with Jewish and Muslim kids. If apartheid would stop in the West Bank and Israel, I think the people can learn to like each other; they have a lot in common."

The committee, by the way, voted 28-19 to reject the use of the word "apartheid" to describe the Israel-Palestine issue.

Gordon also said that she has Jewish friends in the United States, and that the Jewish community there is not monolithic, that like other communities, it supports a wide spectrum of ideas. As for J Street, she added, "Well, I would describe J Street as 'AIPAC light.'"

If the divestment vote does not pass, Gordon said she will not give up. She will return to the next GA with the same message. "We are a small church, we don't own that many stocks and the divestment will probably occur over a year or two. It's not that we'll sell all our stocks tomorrow. But it's a moral message to these companies that you should not profit from the occupation."

Higher education for all

While the Presbyterian church is preoccupied with the occupation, a project established by a California-based Israeli is trying to figure out how to help make the world a better place. Earlier this week, entrepreneur Shai Reshef announced his online project, University of the People, has received a $500,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The project's aim is to provide quality university-level courses online, for free. While the idea of tuition-free courses on the Internet is not original - MIT began offering such courses 10 years ago, and universities including Stanford have followed suit over the past decade - Reshef's ambitious goal is to offer his courses to millions of people in third world countries who couldn't otherwise afford higher education. The Gates Foundation grant will go toward pursuit of accreditation for the courses.

Reshef founded the project in 2009, and it has since partnered with Yale University for research, New York University to accept students and Hewlett-Packard for internships. To date, more than 1,500 students from more than 130 countries have been accepted, with 2,900 professors volunteering to help them with their studies. All-in-all, fairly good numbers in comparison to many traditional educational institutions.

"In general, our students are not typical students looking for free education; they simply cannot afford education," Reshef told Haaretz. "They work hard, spending 15-20 hours a week on each course. Unfortunately, the problem ... is only going to grow." UNESCO has said that due to population growth, by the year 2025, 98 million people will be denied access to higher education because there simply won't be enough universities to serve demand. "University of the People," Reshef said, "is here to help serve this demand and successfully keep our future populations, who would otherwise be shut out of the opportunity to be educated."

Reshef said that he "genuinely applauds" Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and other universities that provide knowledge to many via free courses. "The more universities that open their courses, the better it is for people and the world in general. Moreover, having the best universities of the world adopting our method of teaching online even further legitimizes the concept ... and of our model in particular."

Reshef said that the online courses offered by these universities are great for people who wish to learn a specific subject or get a certificate in a defined area. But, he said, these are "not degree programs where the results are well-rounded students with full comprehension of both the field and general education. Courses such as these are not a replacement for full comprehensive academic degrees in terms of recognition in the job market, if one wanted the ability to show diversity in educational and self-development. There are no other nonprofit, tuition-free online universities yet."

Reshef explained that because his project is not-for-profit, competition is not a threat. "Our mission is to offer access to higher education for everyone in the world, so if others want to as well, it is wonderful. Competition is complimentary, not competitive for us ... there are millions of people constrained accesses to higher education. The more government-sponsored, tuition-free universities and other universities are able to provide affordable education, the better our world will be."

But do the intended students, those in the third world who cannot afford very much, even have computers or access to the World Wide Web? Reshef acknowledges that "quite a few students are and will remain excluded from our programs in the near future due to a lack of Internet connection ... However, we discovered that many students find creative solutions to study with us. Some do it through their mobile phones, using tablets, or by downloading the material at an Internet cafe.

For example, Reshef describes how in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, many people still live in tents, and certainly do not have access to computers or the Internet. So, he created a Haiti Project, in which UoPeople teams up with local organizations to make studying possible. Together, they created dedicated education centers for students, completely furnished with computers, electricity, back-up generators and satellite Internet. The nonprofit also instituted a food program to provide students with a free meal each day, so they will have the nourishment necessary to study. For many students, this is their only meal of the day. Students at the center study in shifts of four hours at a time, eat, and then go back to their homes or tents.

While UoPeople awaits accreditation, it is already approved to operate by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, and is licensed in California. "Therefore, we are eligible to grant degrees to our graduates," Reshef explained. "In the American system, there are two stages: the eligibility to grant degrees, and the accreditation of a degree. We are at the first stage and working on the second stage ... We are working hard to prepare students throughout their studies, as well as to provide assistance to students upon graduation.

"One example of our work toward preparing the students for the job market is our online student internship agreement with Hewlett Packard. Also, very recently, we announced the nomination of our new dean of student affairs to help students with their futures. With the welcoming support and endorsement we continue to receive from top universities, with having top academics as our professors, and through our creation of corporate partnerships, we are sure that our graduates will not have any issues with finding a job."

The ultimately impact of UoPeople is still unclear, since it is only in its third year of operation, so as of yet, has no graduates. It is also unclear how many people will actually finish the program, and how many will drop out in the middle. But, said Reshef, "95 percent of our students say they would recommend UoPeople to their peers." Sounds like a good start, so far.

Demonstrators holding a banner reading "Against colonization and apartheid in Palestine, Boycott of Israeli products" in southern France, Sept. 28, 2002. Credit: AP
Reshef and his students in Haiti.Credit: UoPeople



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