Los Angeles Launches Nation's First Israel Divestment Campaign
by Linda Milazzo
On April 1, 2010, in a no-holds-barred interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Israeli peacemaker Jonathan Ben Artzi, a PhD candidate at Brown University and nephew to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, made clear his belief that equality and social justice will prevail in Israel when the government and people of the United States adopt a no-tolerance stance toward Israel's abuse of Palestinians. Ben Artzi, whose family has lived in the region for nine generations, and who's seen a lifetime of Israel's abuse of Palestinians, declared:
"Sometimes it takes a good friend to tell you when enough is enough. As they did with South Africa two decades ago, concerned citizens across the US can make a difference by encouraging Washington to get the message to Israel that this cannot continue."
Jonathan's reference to South Africa is a testament to the powerful roll played by valiant Americans who participated in protests, boycotts and divestment actions nationwide, most between 1984 and 1989, which ultimately forced the white minority South African government to relinquish control over its oppressed Black majority.
Ben Artzi, a man of conscience and compassion, served 18 months in prison for refusing his mandatory service in Israel's military. Ben Artzi goes on to say:
"If Americans truly are our friends, they should shake us up and take away the keys, because right now we are driving drunk, and without this wake-up call, we will soon find ourselves in the ditch of an undemocratic, doomed state."
This week, Jonathan Ben Artzi should be pleased to know that a concerned and energized coalition of Americans has heeded the call to rescue out of control Israel from driving deeper into its ditch.
On Wednesday, September 8th, at a noon press conference in Los Angeles in front of the Israeli Consulate, the California Israel Divestment Campaign, a culturally diverse group of compassionate Americans announced the launch of California ballot initiative 10-0020 to require public employee systems to divest from certain business activities in Israel. In its first official announcement, the California Israel Divestment Campaign (IDC) delivered the following explanation:
"Although California has adopted policies requiring divestment from Sudan, Iran and other nations, this is the first ballot measure in the nation aimed at changing Israeli policies through divestment by State agencies. It directs California’s large public employee and teacher pension funds to be consistent with their responsible investing policies and to divest from companies that violate the human rights of Palestinians.
The description provided by the office of the Attorney General when it approved the measure for circulation says that the initiative “prohibits state retirement funds from investing in companies engaged in certain business activities in Israel."
According to Chris Yatooma, the official proponent of the initiative, “Our government has done nothing to end Israel’s brutal occupation and violation of internationally recognized human rights, UN Resolutions and the Geneva Conventions.” In fact, as campaign organizer Yael Korin, notes, “our tax dollars now help fund these violations of human rights to the tune of more than $3 billion a year in grants, adding up to a staggering $106 billion over the past five decades.”
“California retirement funds have their own disturbing record,” said local campaign organizer Sherna Gluck, a member of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). “Our public retirement systems have more than $1.5 billion invested in at least eight companies that provide war materials and services used in violation of internationally recognized human rights, including support for the illegal Israeli settlements and the "Separation Wall.”
For over four decades, since the 1967 Six Day War, propagandized as a victorious miracle on par with David v. Goliath, Americans have ingested a distorted media diet of Israelis portrayed as victims and Palestinians portrayed as villains. But with the launch of domestic and international outlets for independent journalism and new media, the truth is now accessible. More and more Americans have come to realize that Israelis are the oppressors and Palestinians are the oppressed. In addition, more and more Americans are learning that the relationship between the United States and Israel is not really in America's best interests - a previously untenable concept.
What is occurring as a result of Americans' new knowledge is their widespread anger over being misled for so long. Many Americans, myself included, feel a sense of guilt at being unwitting pawns in Israel's forty year occupation and systematic torture, deprivation, and dare I say, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Many Americans are further incensed that our legislators have voted annually to award Israel, a wealthy and thriving nation, 3 billion of our tax dollars which go directly into its military.
Fortunately there are ways to fight back against this tyranny in which we Americans have been unwitting pawns. The launch of the California Israel Divestment Campaign is a powerful weapon to that end. Divestment worked well in defeating apartheid in South Africa. Indeed, South Africa's own Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a principal endorser of this new Israel Divestment Campaign, said this of the campaign on August 22nd:
"We defeated apartheid nonviolently because the international community agreed to support the disinvestment in apartheid campaign. A similar campaign can help to bring peace in the Middle East and do so nonviolently."
This much beloved Nobel Laureate is correct. As is Nobel Laureate and Belfast peacemaker, Mairead Maguire, who is also an endorser.
Each day the momentum is building for this divestment campaign. The list of individuals and organizations that support this effort, which requires the state public retirement funds (PERS and STRS) to divest from companies that provide products or services contributing to the construction or maintenance of Israeli settlements and/or the Separation Wall in the Palestinian Territories; and/or military supplies, equipment and services to the State of Israel that are used by the military and/or police in violation of internationally recognized human rights, as determined by the UN and NGOS, is growing ever larger. And this is just the beginning. This is the just the first divestment launch in California. Similar launches in other California cities are soon to come.
Even though the goal to divest is one of justice and human rights, it will take much hard work to achieve. At least 434,000 registered California voters must sign a petition to qualify the measure for the statewide ballot. Petitions should be ready for signature gathering in mid-September 2010, after which there will be five months to gather the required signatures. If the requisite number of signatures is gathered, the initiative will appear on the next statewide ballot after March, 2011.
If a majority of voters support the measure, it becomes California law and the public retirement systems in California will have to sell their stocks (divest) in those companies that provide goods and services to Israel which violate UN Resolutions, the Geneva Conventions, and international rules of human rights. It is important to note that the Initiative will in no way jeopardize the pension benefits of PERS and STRS members.
California is frequently the national leader. With this divestment campaign, Californians are poised to spark a state-by-state divestiture movement to parallel the anti-Apartheid campaign that helped defeat the oppressive rule in South Africa. To participate, please visit here. If you're in Southern California, please email here.
To underscore the passion and humanity of the Israel Divestment Campaign, Marcy Winograd, former candidate for California's 36th Congressional District, offers this personal and poignant explanation for her own participation:
"Today I lend my name and my support to a crucial ballot measure calling for divestiture in companies that aid the Israeli occupation of Palestine and perpetuate the brutal blockade of over a million people, half of them children, in the ever-more crowded Gaza strip.
As a Jewish woman of conscience, as a teacher who contributes to the California State Teacher Retirement System, I do not want my name, nor the fruits of my labor supporting companies that collude with the government of Israel to steal Palestinian land, bulldoze Palestinian homes,
or imprison those in Gaza routinely denied access to clean water and medicine.
Now is the time for Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all believers, be they believers in a higher power or simply in the power of love, to stand for human rights and to demand that our public institutions, like CALSTRS and CALPRS, sell stock in corporations that profit off of misery in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza -- making us all less safe.
I urge my fellow teachers to echo my call. Let us divest of our stock in Caterpillar, which makes bullet proof tractors that slice Palestinian homes to ribbons in minutes. Let us divest of General Electric that builds the weapons that terrorize the next generation in Gaza. Let us give the people of our great golden state, California, an opportunity to promote peace by saying NO to companies involved in ever-expanding settlements that erase the beautiful olive trees of Palestine, only to generate more hatred.
In the name of peace, of dignity, of equal rights, let us collect enough signatures to put this measure on the ballot and join a global movement calling for divestiture.
Thank you, my friends, for your courage."