When I was growing up, my mother instilled a very strong sense of right and wrong in me. The morals she imparted were firmly rooted in the history of the Jewish people.
My mother taught me about the pogroms in Russia, the harsh working conditions Jews had to endure in sweatshops, and the discrimination Jews faced in America.
She also taught me about Samuel Gompers who founded the American Federation of Labor, and about Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who gave their lives alongside James Chaney in the civil rights movement.
The lessons I learned were clear. We must stand up for justice. Discrimination and prejudice were wrong. All people were equal and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
The holidays we celebrated were right in line with this. At Passover we remember that we were slaves in Egypt. Chanukah is the story of how Judah Maccabee and a small band of men defeated the Greek Army so that we could practice our religion. At Purim, we boo when we hear the name of Haman, who wanted to destroy the Jews, and we cheer Esther who risked her life to save her people.
And of course she taught me about the Holocaust, of the heroic ways that Jews fought back, and of the horrific ways in which they died.
This was the history that gave the founding of Israel so much importance. It was as if finally after tragedy after tragedy, the story of our people had a happy ending.
As I was taught it, Arabs wanted to deny us this happy ending and drive all the Jews into the sea because we were Jewish. I, like so many other Jews, was not taught that the founding of Israel required the forced removal of 700,000 Palestinians.
When I got to college in 1985 I quickly became involved in trying to get the school to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. I was arrested in an act of civil disobedience along with ten other students, including Amy Carter, the daughter of Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President Jimmy Carter.
Around this time I saw a flyer about the unholy alliance between the United States, South Africa, and Israel. I wanted to believe that this was an untrue anti-Semitic attack on Israel, but it wasn’t. Israel provided arms to the apartheid regime.
A few years later when Nelson Mandela was finally released from jail and visited the United States, Jewish groups threatened to protest because of Mandela’s statements comparing the Palestinian struggle to that of South African blacks.
Because this truth about Israel was too painful to process, I ignored it. Even as I lived the values my mother imparted through my work with labor unions and community organizations, I largely ignored what people were saying about the oppression of Palestinians. I put Israel out of my mind, and for a long time, I also put being Jewish out of my mind.
Then, twenty years later I heard a group of young Jews speak out against what Israel was doing in the occupied territories and how they – as Jews – felt obligated to do whatever they could to stop this.
I went to Israel to see for myself. I saw that Israel was building a 425 mile wall that separated communities and families from each other, cut off farmers from their land, and prevented Palestinians from getting to work or school. I saw that the Israeli government was demolishing Palestinian homes while it continued to allow new Jewish settlements.
It was clear to me that Israel’s main interest was not to achieve peace but to take the most desirable and viable land for itself while forcing Palestinians into a life of poverty filled with daily reminders of their inferior status. My experience confirmed what Jimmy Carter had written – that Israel had created an apartheid system.
Shortly after I got back, the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN dis-invited Archbishop Desmond Tutu after the Jewish Community Relations Council said that Tutu had made comments that were hurtful to the Jewish community.
What had Tutu said? “I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about”. Sometimes the truth hurts.
The Minnesota JCRC’s web site features a quote from South African Zulu Leader Chief Buthelezi that “[t]he Israeli regime is not apartheid.”
Who is Chief Buthelezi? He was one of the only black South Africans who opposed divestment and encouraged foreign investment in South Africa, claiming it was good for black people. The international business community embraced him and ignored the fact that all the black leaders of the anti-apartheid movement were in favor of sanctions and divestment.
Inspired by the success of the boycott and divestment movement to abolish South African apartheid, a broad range of Palestinian civil society organizations issued a call in 2005 for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions as part of a non-violent campaign to end the Israeli occupation.
The people who opposed divestment from South Africa twenty-five years ago argued that the best way to change apartheid was through the “constructive engagement” of corporations with the apartheid regime. They were wrong.
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To me, it is just as immoral for companies to profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, as it was for companies to profit from South African apartheid. As the world and I learned 25 years ago, outside pressure is often required to bring about change and stop oppressive government policies. Today’s generation is poised to play a historic part in helping to bring peace, justice, and equality to the Middle East.