Monday, May 10, 2010

Danny Colligan Weighs In On Arguments Against Divestment

Stanford Graduate Student in Computer Science, Danny Colligan, discusses some of the arguments against the divestment campaign:

Six Degrees of Anti-Divestment Drivel

by Danny Colligan

In the past couple weeks the Stanford campus has once again turned its attention to the Israel-Palestine region. The launch of Campaign Restore Hope (CRH), an effort by Fadi Quran and others to divest from various companies that are participating in human rights abuses in the region, provided the impetus for the discussion. The goals of CRH seem, to me, compassionate, measured and just. But others disagree, indeed, emphatically so. I can not say I am surprised by the significant fuss that CRH's initiative has sparked -- just about any position on any Israel-Palestinian issue will meet with heated opposition.

What I am surprised by, however, is the Stanford community's willingness to tolerate absurd arguments attacking CRH. Most, if not all, of the objections that the anti-CRH side raise fall down upon further investigation. Some are silly, some are backwards, and some are not arguments at all. In this article I will present what I perceive to be the most popular anti-divestment arguments and address them point by point.

(Full disclosure: I have recently been meeting with Fadi and others involved in CRH to help with its efforts. This article represents my opinions alone, not those of CRH or anyone else involved in CRH.)


One point raised by the opponents of divestment is that such an effort would be "divisive." This division argument can take many forms: fracturing the Jewish community, the Stanford student body, etc. Division is undesirable, opponents of divestment claim, and it must be minimized to the extent possible. The unspoken corollary to this argument is that complete unanimity of thought is an obvious desideratum in politics.

But this sentiment misidentifies what politics actually is, and adhering to it would completely undermine a healthy public discourse. Politics is "division by definition," as Christopher Hitchens aptly puts it inLetters to a Young Contrarian. Those who desire to live in a world free of intellectual conflict are pining for a "Disneyland of the mind, where there is an end to striving and a general feeling of contentment and bliss." If we sincerely do want to improve the situation in Israel-Palestine, we must recognize that, "[I]n life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation." Competing viewpoints are part and parcel of politics and eliminating division from politics would be to eliminate politics altogether.

So we can dismiss appeals for intellectual unanimity as a persuasive argument against divestment. Resorting to the "divisive" argument is merely an attempt to suppress discussion of the actual issues.

An instance where it would make sense to consider "divisiveness" would be if there were alternative strategies working towards ending human rights abuses in the region. Clearly, pursing the less controversial solution would be the tactical move. However, to my knowledge, no competing strategies have been proposed in which the Stanford community could easily participate. (I do not count SIA's recent microfinance initiative as a campaign that works towards ending human rights abuses. I am certainly not opposed to microfinance in the region per se, but launching the effort to coincide with CRH's makes it seem a rather cynical attempt to derail the divestment push. Personally, I believe an ideal campaign would draw attention to the US role in perpetuating the ongoing crisis since it is the policy that US citizens can democratically influence.)

Singling Out Israel

Another argument against divestment is that proponents of divestment are singling out Israel. (I have yet to hear anyone claim that CRH is singling out Palestine or Egypt even though CRH also targets a Palestinian and Egyptian company for divestment, but I suppose the same argument could be offered.) This is true: the Israel-Palestine situation is under scrutiny at present. Anyone who says that someone on campus is currently singling out Israel is merely stating the obvious.

What opponents of divestment actually mean when they say this, however, is that such examination is somehow unfair, claiming a double standard in how Israel is discussed when compared to other states. However, this assertion is demonstrably false. As the Daily notes, companies affiliated with other countries perpetrating human rights violations have been divested from in the past.

But I think there is an even more compelling argument to be made against the singling out claim. If you truly fancy yourself as someone who is in favor of human rights, the correct response to being confronted with evidence of torture, massacre and forcible annexation perpetrated by your favorite country is "This is terrible, and it must stop," not "But what about all those other countries that are also violating human rights?" I would be more partial to this equality of treatment argument if those that offered it were observably working to end human rights abuses elsewhere. But this argument only seems to come up with the intention of stifling talk of human rights abuses rather than earnestly attempting to prevent them.

Ulterior Motives

A constant worry of the opponents to divestment is that those working for divestment somehow have ulterior motives. No matter how CRH denies the accusations, they somehow can not seem to dismiss the suspicion amongst some that their concern for human rights is part of some grander, vile conspiracy. But even if they did harbor such motives, their motives in working for human rights should be absolutely irrelevant to anyone that wants to work with them. The common cause of stopping human rights abuses should be sufficient reason to put differences aside and work for a goal we all share.

Perhaps an analogy will clarify. Suppose I am a citizen of, say, Uganda. And let us further suppose that Ugandan corporations have been cooperating with the state in perpetrating human rights abuses. A group called, say, Stanford Communists comes to me and points out, correctly, that Ugandan human rights are being violated and ask me to join them in divesting from said companies. Now, the Communists have a variety of political views on various issues; I agree with them on some things, and disagree with them on others. But my agreement to work with them to end human rights abuses is not an endorsement of their platform in any way, save their support for ending human rights abuses. I have only agreed to work with them on this specific issue, and no further, unless I decide otherwise in the future.

So even assuming the most base motives of CRH, ulterior motives alone are no reason to reject their campaign for human rights.

Attack on Jewish community / Israel / Jewish identity

Some opponents to divestment allege that divestment is an attack on the Jewish community, Israel, or the Jewish identity. (Again, I haven't heard anyone stipulate that CRH is attacking Palestinian or Egyptian identity even though CRH also targets a Palestinian and an Egyptian company for divestment, but I suppose the same argument could be offered.) The claim that attempting to end human rights abuses is somehow an attack on any of these groups is rather bizarre.

First of all, Jews as a group are hardly united in their antagonism to divestment. As many Jews will surely inform you if you ask, the issue is -- so to speak -- divisive. So the mere fact that some Jews themselves support divestment suggests that CRH's intentions are benign as far as the Jewish community is concerned -- I am not aware of any group that advocates attacks from the outside against itself. But more importantly, the suggestion that an attempt to end human rights violations is against the interest of the Jewish community is an argument that the Jewish community has an inherent interest in these abuses. This, of course, is transparently absurd and rather offensive. The same goes for the claim that ending human rights abuses is an assault on Jewish identity.

As far as Israel is concerned, Israel (as well as any other state) clearly does not require violations of human rights to exist and prosper. When some argue that decrying Israel's human rights abuses is an attack on Israel, they are arguing something far more damaging to the state of Israel than CRH is. What they are essentially saying is "Human rights abuses are essential to Israel's being, since an attack on one is an attack on the other." If I were an Israeli, I would find this argument deeply offensive, so it is strange that what is called the "pro-Israel" side is using it.


Some divestment opponents feel so strongly about their position (whatever it may be) that they refuse to debate the issue and rely on emotional appeals to sway listeners. This tactic was used recently during the debates over the divestment bill at Berkeley and similar "arguments" are popping up at Stanford. As leaked talking points to the Cal divestment opposition ordered, "BE EMOTIONAL. Don't be afraid to show how you feel (angry, sad, etc.) ... AVOID a debate on the Middle East. Supporters of the bill would like to argue on this platform."

It is difficult for anyone to refute these "arguments" since there is not a coherent point made anywhere. I will merely comment that any faction that resorts to such desperate measures as one of its core points is clearly standing on tenuous logical ground. There is certainly nothing wrong with bringing emotion into a conversation per se, but being emotional solely with the intent of shutting down discussion is not a valid debate tactic.

Argument has no place

One point that invariably comes up in opposition to any activist movement is the predictable "this is not the time nor place." With regard to the anti-divestment position, a variant of this argument has been forwarded by students and a professor, Larry Diamond, in the context of the proposed ASSU bill. Of all places it would seem to me that the ASSU, which claims to be a representative body of the students, would be quite the appropriate place to voice student concerns about human rights abuses. Not so, says Diamond, who took recently elected ASSU senators to dinner to extol the virtues of inaction. It is curious that a professor who writes books about democracy would be looking to actively suppress it on campus, deeming such an effort "inappropriate."

I would be more receptive to this argument if it came along with a proposal for a time and place to discuss such things. But inevitably, it does not, revealing once again the goals of those who articulate it -- to simply stop the discussion altogether. We should not voluntarily renounce the rights of freedom of expression in the academy, especially on an issue of such consequence and gravity. But suppose we were to heed the pleas of Diamond, et al. What would be the result? The human rights abuses would continue, the campus would be as ignorant concerning the issues as before, and no progress towards peace in the region would be made. Clearly this is not the outcome anyone who claims to support human rights wants, and thus we must reject this argument.


The anti-CRH points are not strong arguments. Upon closer examination, most of them seem to be more concerned with squelching dialog than honestly discussing the pros and cons of divestment. Seeing how weak the opposition's points are, I can not give their position much credence. CRH, on the other hand, seems to have a very powerful argument in favor of its campaign: human rights abuses must be stopped as soon as possible. CRH is a noble cause, and I have no problem giving it my full support. I hope that anyone who is truly concerned with contributing to ending human rights abuses in Israel-Palestine will do the same.



5/4/10 Senate to vote on transition today

5/4/10 Op-Ed: We Choose to Invest

5/5/10 Senate fails to agree on end date

5/5/10 Op-Ed: Campaign Restore Hope Already Succeeding

5/6/10 Op-Ed: Understanding divestment

5/7/10 Petition, potential ASSU bill spark divestment debate

5/10/10 Op-Ed: Honest debate and its enemies

5/10/10 Op-Ed: Three Steps Forward: Campaign Restore Hope and Invest for Peace


5/6/10 Divestment at Stanford -- A Primer


CRH site

UC Berkeley anti-divestment bill talking points