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Challenging the ethics of divestment

In recent months the debate over investing in Israel has become a focal point for church related organizations and groups. While many reject the idea of investing in businesses that help the Israeli occupying forces in their efforts to further oppress and control the Palestinians, few are able to undertake steps to help in stopping such injustices.

To decide to take the higher moral ground usually demands a high price. When the Presbyterian Church courageously decided to divest in Israel, it was confronted with crude accusations and attacks from different groups, mainly Zionist and occupation-supporter groups.

Even though the Presbyterian Church is holding steadfastly to its general assembly's vote of July to "initiate the process of phased, selective divestment from corporations contributing to the Israeli government's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza," recurring assaults on the church provide shaky grounds for its constituencies and open prospects to review choices which could lead to a change in stance.

Divestment from a financial point of view is a tough decision to take. Consider divesting from one of the big companies like Caterpillar. In simple terms it may mean a loss of profit, especially at a time when the demand for Caterpillar equipment and machinery is high in Israel with all the house demolitions that are occurring and the building of the monstrous apartheid wall. Business-oriented minds usually look for such opportunities to invest, not the other way around. To champion a successful divestment effort in Israel, at least two fundamental elements have to be introduced. First, investors have to recognize that under international law investing in corporations involved with occupation is viewed as complicity in crimes against humanity and therefore is a crime under international law. It is not enough for investors to sense that it is unethical to invest in occupation schemes, but they should also be aware of the consequences it entails.

This might not have a major impact on most of those who are investing in Israel, since it is the norm that international law is not respected when issues related to the above the law state of Israel are at stake. Many international laws and regulations have been broken, tampered with or ignored to suit the interests of Israel. However, to many who still believe that ethically it is not permitted to support illegal forces, this window of opportunity should be opened. Second, to carry on with a fruitful divestment campaign, tangible and viable alternatives have to be provided for "wannabe divestors." Divestment promoters should not only encourage groups to pull out their shares from corporations dealing with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but also be prepared to present feasible and profitable investment opportunities for Palestinians as an option.

Those who divest must be urged to take a proactive role to help revive life for the people who are suffering at the hands of investments in the Israeli occupation. It is a responsibility not only to cleanse oneself of occupation-supporting investments, but also to engage in the process of building viable and sustainable livelihoods for Palestinians.

As slim as investment opportunities may seem in the current Palestinian economy, chances are still to be found, especially in the health, education and communications sectors. The challenge is to make the ethical choice and not solely the financially lucrative one.

Carol Sansour Dabdoub is the Local Media Coordinator at the International Center of Bethlehem, www.bethlehemmedia.net. This article originally appeared in Bethlehem Media Net and the Palestine Monitor, and is republished with permission

Beirut,01 17 2005
Carole Sansour Dabdoub
The Daily Star
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