In 2005 Palestinian Civil Society issued the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and subsequently chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine in college campuses across the U.S. took it upon themselves to honor this call to action by attempting to get their schools either to boycott or divest from—that is, stop investing in—companies that profit directly from committing human rights violations against Palestinians. Despite the BDS movement’s explicitly non-violent and humanitarian agenda, there have been various objections raised against campus divestment efforts. One such counterargument is that student activists working for this cause aren’t dedicated to “true” justice, because if they were, they would be also be concerned with, say, the unequal treatment of women in Saudi Arabia or injustices faced by Palestinians within other Arab countries. There are, of course, many more issues that could be listed, and that’s precisely the point—the issues usually brought up in these arguments are variables; what remains constant is the underlying implication—namely, that pro-divestment students are somehow “inauthentic” when claiming that they’re working for justice because they only focus on one specific issue.
There are several problems with this argument. Firstly, as Omar Barghouti, Palestinian scholar, choreographer and activist, remarked during an event last Wednesday, divestment is not a zero-sum game. There are many BDS activists involved in multiple causes. Indeed, much of the work done by our SJP chapter is outreaching to and collaborating with a diverse array of other student organizations dedicated to ending the unequal treatment of systematically marginalized groups.
Furthermore, as figures like Cory Robin have argued, it is ridiculous to fault activist efforts for being specific. Throughout history, necessary changes have been brought about precisely by reformers who identified clear, articulable, and achievable goals related to a wider issue, goals which were then pursued via carefully organized campaigns. So, for instance, the unequal treatment of people of color within the U.S., while viewed as a larger concern, has been and continues to be countered through organizing efforts tied to particular aspects of discrimination, such as full and equal access to resources, voting rights, etc. The list goes on and on, and divestment, which would ensure that our school no longer invests in companies that directly profit from systematic abuse of Palestinians, is no different. The point is, although they ultimately work toward a wider goal, the efforts of activists are always specific, and so to cite this as a defect demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of activism and even historical progression overall.
But for me, one of the chief issues of this argument is its racist and reductive logic. Let me illustrate by example: if I were to tell someone who is active in campaigns related to the femicides in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico that they are not dedicated to “true” justice because their efforts don’t include the treatment of women in other Latin American countries, I would basically be implying that all Latin American countries are “the same” by virtue of being close to one another and sharing a common language. Of course this is not true; despite our awareness of what some countries have in common, we can’t use these similarities as an excuse to over-generalize to the point that we forget how each country is still unique and comes with its own particular set of problems and complications. This is just as true for the Near East as it is for Latin America, and yet opponents of BDS continue to issue this very charge against Palestine solidarity activists.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Divestment may only be one cause, and it’s true that it won’t solve everything, even for the Palestinians. But as Dr. King’s quote makes clear, bringing an end to any instance of oppression only brings us closer to a more humane and equal world. If that’s not true justice, I don’t know what is.