Dear Professor Chomsky,
I’ve long been a huge admirer of yours, and I remain so. I heard you on Democracy Now this morning and really appreciated how clearly you articulated the gap between what President Obama said and what needs to happen in order to have a genuine and just peace.
On the issue of divestment, however, I really must take issue with your statement. You are right, of course, that education and organizing are necessary for a divestment campaign to be effective and comprehensible. But you are wrong to imply that the movement for divestment from South Africa did not begin until that organizing and education had already taken place. You are helping to perpetuate the myth that everyone in the U.S. and other countries in the global North always opposed apartheid and came to the divestment solution simultaneously, in some kind of epiphany. And this is very harmful to the young people who are now getting involved in the movement for justice in Palestine, making them feel that they are up against insurmountable odds.
I well remember the movement for justice in Southern Africa. I entered college in the fall of 1976, months after the Soweto uprising, and the first wave of campus divestment actions consumed my college years. I remember sitting in lecture halls and listening to well-reasoned, liberal professors explaining why divestment was the wrong tactic, that it would be morally wrong for Oberlin College to divest, that we needed to use constructive engagement. I remember that the U.S. government’s position was that the ANC was a terrorist organization and that Mandela needed to renounce violence before the South African government could be pressured to negotiate.
We were largely unsuccessful during that period, as you will recall. It was not until ten years later, 1986, that colleges began divesting in large numbers – only three years before the fall of the apartheid regime. The struggle for divestment, boycott and sanctions against South Africa took a very long time, and the U.S. government and major U.S. institutions joined it very late.
Yes, we who want justice in Palestine need to do education and organizing, but divestment/boycott itself is a tool for education and organizing. When you ask a church, union or college to divest from Israel, you are of course going to have teach-ins and panels and all manner of activities to educate people about why divestment is necessary. When you ask consumers not to buy L’Oreal or Sara Lee, you are going to hand out fliers and pamphlets and do street theater to show them what the connection is between their hair care products and tanks and checkpoints.
As one of the most influential intellectuals in this country, and one of those who have done the most to bring the issue of U.S./Israeli colonialism into the light, you are in a unique position to influence how people think about this issue. Therefore, I urge you to carefully consider the issue of divestment/boycott and why you are reluctant to embrace what have unquestionably been the most effective pressure and organizing tactics of our time.
A South African friend wrote to me the other day, “here in South Africa, we can’t find any white people who voted for the apartheid ... sometimes I wonder if apartheid was just a figment of our collective imaginations ... inshallah zionsim will suffer the same fate.”
I believe we can make it happen. The first step is reminding people that yes, apartheid did exist and yes, people did support it and yes, people did refuse to oppose it vigorously and yes, all that changed because people refused to be deterred.
With sincere admiration for all you have done,