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In Defense Of Human Rights

Guest Column
Nancy Kanwisher

Several weeks ago we began circulating a petition calling on the U.S. government, and on our universities, to make future arms sales and investments in Israel contingent on four conditions: that Israel end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and return to its pre-1967 borders, that it vacate its settlements in these territories, that it end government-sanctioned torture and deportation of prisoners and suspects, and that it compensate Palestinian refugees who were forced to leave their homes when the state of Israel was founded. All of these conditions accord with UN Security Council Resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The idea that Israel should respect the human rights of all people and comply with international agreements is uncontroversial in most of the world. But here in the United States, and especially in our own universities, this petition has elicited a surprising amount of controversy and ill will.

The Middle East is in crisis. Palestinian and Israeli civilians are killed daily, and that very troubled part of the world is experiencing a new escalation of fear, hatred, and mistrust. Nevertheless, a solution to this tragedy exists, and it has been accepted by nearly every country in the world, including the U.S. government: two independent states -- the state of Israel occupying its recognized borders, and a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza.

We and many others in this country and the Middle East, including Israelis as well as Palestinians, are optimistic that this outcome is both possible and workable as a way to ensure long-term stability and security for all parties in the region. The purpose of our petition is to mobilize the substantial power of the U.S. government and economy to bring about this outcome.

We are puzzled by the resistance of Israel’s supporters to the conditions in the divestment petition, because we think it is clear that Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is not only unjust and injurious to the Palestinians, but also very harmful and strategically disastrous for the Israelis. Much of the danger that Israel now faces comes from the misery and hopelessness of three million people whose land Israel occupies in the West Bank and Gaza. The obvious first step toward increasing Israel’s security is to end this occupation. But although an end to the occupation is in Israel’s best interests, Israeli government actions (as well as tacit American encouragement) have made it increasingly unlikely that a peaceful resolution of the conflict can be reached.

Why do we call on the U.S. government, MIT, and Harvard to cease military aid and investments in Israel but not Palestine? First, we believe that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, coupled with a commitment to respect international conventions on human rights, are the most important steps that could be taken to bring peace to the region. Although violence has come from both sides of this conflict, the positions of Israelis and Palestinians are not symmetrical. Millions of Palestinians are living under Israeli occupation, but no Israelis are living under Palestinian rule. Palestinian homes are demolished by Israeli bulldozers but not vice versa. Israel imposes curfews and checkpoints on Palestinians, not the reverse.

The Israeli government has explicitly endorsed torture, assassination, and deportation as acceptable actions against those it suspects have engaged in acts of violence. And in the last few months, Israel has systematically destroyed Palestinian schools, hospitals, businesses, and civic institutions. Moreover, the United States government and economic institutions have not played symmetrical roles in the conflict. Israel is the recipient of enormous U.S. military aid and investment, whereas Palestine is the recipient of very little. Were we providing the arms for both sides of this conflict, then it might be reasonable to demand a halt to all our funding of both sides. In fact, however, both U.S. military aid and corporate military investments are directed almost entirely toward Israel. This is the most striking, and dangerous, asymmetry in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Another major criticism of the divestment petition is that it fails to consider Israel’s security needs. Some of our critics have gone so far as to imply that our action puts Israel’s existence at risk. We have already stated that most governments throughout the world, including ours, have endorsed a two-state outcome to the conflict, reasoning as we do that this outcome is not only a just solution, but is also the best step toward Israel’s long-term security. Until the horror of recent suicide attacks, most Israelis agreed, and many still do.

Suicide attacks are likely to continue until Palestinians have a real stake in peace and are convinced that Israel will leave the territories permanently. We recognize that many further steps may be needed to ensure a lasting peace, such as the stationing of an international peacekeeping force along the border. Our hope is that these measures will ensure a secure, democratic Israel beside a secure, democratic Palestine.

Why do we single out Israel and ignore violations of human rights committed by other countries? Social, political, and human rights problems are normally tackled one by one, as they arise. No one asked the protesters against the Vietnam War why they singled out that U.S. action rather than others; no one asked protesters against South Africa in the apartheid era why they were choosing to protest that issue. Protests are initiated when some threshold of concern is reached; in our case, it was the combination of the suicide bombings, the massive invasion of the West Bank, and the increase of settlement activity that propelled us to take action.

Some critics have claimed or implied that our focus on Israel’s policies is the result of anti-Semitism. Accusations of anti-Semitism have been used for decades to stifle criticism of Israeli policy, and they have been extremely effective. The world has been astonishingly silent during decades of Israeli occupation, and much of America still does not dare to raise any criticism of Israel. The charge of anti-Semitism serves to deflect attention away from Israeli governmental actions.

We want the petition to open up discussion of these issues in our academic communities and beyond. We hope that Israel’s supporters will join us in an open debate, not try to stifle discussion by questioning our motives. We firmly believe that an open exchange of ideas, free from personal attacks, offers the best hope of progress in breaking the current deadlock and moving toward a resolution of the conflict that respects the human rights of Palestinians and Israelis alike.

This article, submitted to The Tech by Nancy Kanwisher, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, was also signed by Danny Fox, an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy; Molly Potter, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; and John Assad, Patrick Cavanagh, Ken Nakayama, and Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University.