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Boycott Israeli Apartheid: If Not Now, When?

By Lucas M. Koerner, Contributing Opinion Writer
Lucas M. Koerner is a second-year doctoral student in Latin American and Caribbean History.

On May 13, Israeli warplanes bombed the home of the Tanani family in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, killing 38-year-old Ra’fat Tanani, his pregnant 35-year-old wife, Rawiye, and their children, 6-year-old Ismail, 5-year-old Ameer, 4-year-old Adham, and 3-year-old Mohammad.

This flagrant violation of the international laws of warfare is far from an isolated incident in the world’s largest open-air prison: the Gaza Strip.

In its 11-day bombardment, the Israeli military killed at least 257 people, including 67 children and multiple families, among them 22 family members of a Harvard Law School alumnus. Wiping out Palestinian families, Amira Hass reports, is not a new Israeli military practice. Back in 2014, Israeli occupation forces killed 142 families in a previous, 51-day assault on Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz has defended this policy of indiscriminately killing Palestinian civilians, stating on May 18, “no person, area or neighborhood in Gaza is immune.”

As a Jew whose family survived the Tsarist pogroms and lost relatives in the Nazi Holocaust, I am appalled and outraged at Israel’s effort to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian people from their native land, which has been ongoing since its foundation in 1948.

My great-grandmother did not escape anti-Semitic terror and second-class status so that a Jewish settler-colonial state purporting to speak in her name could establish what leading Israeli human rights organization B’tselem and even Human Rights Watch — otherwise in lockstep with U.S. foreign policy — describe as an apartheid regime.

In the face of Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism, Omar Barghouti stresses there is only one meaningful international response: heeding Palestinian civil society’s call for a global campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions modeled on the South African anti-apartheid movement, often referred to as BDS.

Harvard must therefore divest from all Israeli and international companies profiting from Israel’s apartheid regime.

A broad coalition of campus Palestine groups recently affirmed that “the university maintains nearly $200 million in public, direct and indirect investments in companies that are involved in the illegal Israeli settlement enterprise, including companies that provide surveillance, weapons, and bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes.”

Harvard must not remain on the wrong side of history, like when it refused to divest from apartheid South Africa.

But divestment is not enough. Harvard is home to the Wexner Foundation, which annually awards ten scholarships through its Israel Fellowship to “outstanding public sector directors and leaders from Israel” to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration at the Kennedy School.

Past Wexner fellows include more than 25 Israeli generals and other high-ranking military and police officials. Among them is the Israeli Defense Force’s current chief of general staff, Aviv Kochavi, who is directly responsible for the latest bombardment of Gaza. Kochavi is believed to be one of the 200 to 300 Israeli officials identified by Tel Aviv as likely to be indicted by the International Criminal Court’s probe into alleged Israeli war crimes committed in Gaza in 2014.

The Wexner Foundation additionally paid former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak — himself accused of war crimes in connection with Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead that killed over 1400 Palestinians in Gaza — $2.3 million for two studies, one of which he did not complete. Barak was a Belfer fellow at HKS in 2016.

The foundation also runs an “intensive leadership development program for leaders in Israel,” which includes four weeks at HKS. The program counts among its alumni senior civilian and military officials, including the head of budget and planning at Israel’s prison service, which currently incarcerates 4,650 Palestinians political prisoners subject to systematic torture.

Harvard must sever ties with the Wexner Foundation, in addition to ending all research agreements and study abroad programs with Israeli universities in line with Palestinian civil society’s call for an international academic boycott.

Study abroad programs discriminate not just against Palestinian Harvard students from the occupied territories — hindered from studying within the Green Line by labyrinthine barriers — but also against anyone who publically supports BDS, who may be barred entry under the 2017 Anti-Boycott Law.

Meanwhile, Israeli universities are, according to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, “involved in developing weapon systems and military doctrines deployed in Israel’s recent war crimes in Lebanon and Gaza, justifying the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land, rationalizing gradual ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians, providing moral justification for extra-judicial killings, systematically discriminating against ‘non-Jewish’ students, and other implicit and explicit violations of human rights and international law.” Just like in apartheid South Africa, it is unconscionable to continue normalizing Israeli academia’s complicity in occupation, settler-colonialism, and apartheid.

Finally, Harvard must use its considerable political clout to pressure President Joe Biden’s administration to suspend all aid to Israel until it ends its occupation of all Arab lands and dismantles its illegal separation wall, guarantees equal rights for Palestinian citizens within its pre-1967 borders, and recognizes and implements Palestinian refugees’ right of return as pursuant to UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

Let us not forget that Israel cannot maintain its apartheid regime without active U.S. backing, as Israeli Defense Minister Gantz’s recent “emergency” request for $1 billion in weapons reveals.

Harvard has a clear choice: It can either stand with Palestinians in their struggle for freedom or it can persist in siding with their oppressors. The physical safety and emotional wellbeing of Palestinian Harvard students, alumni, and their families lie in the balance.

As Israel continues its settler-colonial assault on Palestinians between the river and the sea, I echo Rabbi Hillel in asking, “And if not now, when?”

Lucas M. Koerner is a second-year doctoral student in Latin American and Caribbean History.

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