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Mulling Divestment, From The Sudan

Mulling Divestment, From The Sudan

The Jewish community appears poised to join a growing movement of city and state legislatures, universities, religious organizations and other groups in calling for a targeted economic boycott of the Sudan.

The move, supporting divestment from companies with business ties to the Sudanese government, would come as the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, a region of the Sudan, enters its fourth year. The slaughter, considered a genocide by the U.S. government and much of the international community, has killed at least 400,000 civilians and displaced as many as 2.5 million.

But the proposal, which comes up for a vote next week at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, is drawing its critics, who fear that an economic boycott of any country could be used against Israel, itself the target of divestment efforts. The move’s supporters, while acknowledging that point, argue that circumstances in Darfur are so extraordinary and so dire that such a step is more than warranted.

“It’s a tension that weighs heavily on everyone’s mind,” said Josh London, deputy director for public affairs at the Orthodox Union. The OU, an umbrella group of Orthodox congregations and a member of JCPA, still hadn’t decided how to vote as of early this week.

Debate over the issue will take center stage next week at the JCPA’s annual plenum, a four-day event that begins Saturday in Washington. The JCPA is the community-relations arm of American Jewry, representing 125 local Jewish Community Relations Councils and more than a dozen national agencies.

The resolution calls on Jewish communities to support the campaign for “a targeted divestment in Sudan.” Introduced by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, it now has the backing of more than a dozen sponsors, including the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish War Veterans, the Union for Reform Judaism and JCRCs in Connecticut, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.Although that list of sponsors is longer than most other resolutions enjoy, one source close to the JCPA said last week that opposition to the proposal is growing and the resolution could fail. That assessment is disputed by others, though, and discussions within at least one organization, the OU, appeared to be moving toward support of the resolution.

At least two organizations, Hadassah and the JCRC in Philadelphia, have announced their intention to vote against the resolution.

While leaders of the Philadelphia JCRC, a department of that city’s Jewish federation, recognized that divesting from the Sudan and divesting from Israel are “worlds apart,” most felt that supporting the resolution would be inconsistent with their past actions, said Burt Siegel, the JCRC’s executive director.

Beyond that, they felt such a step “would be more symbolic than real,” Siegel continued. On many issues, Jewish leaders charting a response have to ask themselves, “Is this going to help or is it going to make me feel good?” They asked themselves the same question in Philadelphia, Siegel said, concluding “that the resolution is one that would make people feel good but isn’t one that would necessarily save lives.”

Hadassah’s leaders also discussed the issue, despite “a hard and fast policy” of not endorsing any economic boycott, said Ellyn Lyons, chairwoman of the organization’s Israel, Zionist and International Affairs Department. Although all of them clearly believe that Darfur is an “extraordinary situation,” she said, they also believe that any boycott could be a “slippery slope,” with unintended consequences for Israel.

Both Hadassah and the Philadelphia JCRC have been in the forefront of protesting the slaughter in Darfur, meeting with elected officials on the issue and sending large contingents to “Save Darfur” rallies. But, like the Philadelphia JCRC, Hadassah’s leaders questioned whether an economic boycott of the Sudan would be effective, concluding that the United States has little influence over Khartoum.

Officials at two organizations, the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee, sounded a similar note as the plenum approached, arguing that the resolution may be too weak and that more action was needed.David Twersky, AJCongress’ senior adviser on international affairs, said he would recommend to his organization’s decision-makers the position advocated by U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs: to rachet up the sanctions against the Sudanese government and, if those don’t succeed, to take military action, such as instituting a no-fly zone over Darfur. He called divestment “pussy-footing around,” saying it wouldn’t accomplish anything.

Avram Lyon, the JLC’s executive director, offered faint praise for the resolution, calling it “nice,” but said the Jewish community needs to go beyond calls for an economic boycott. “I think divestment would have been the appropriate response when 100,000 were dead,” he suggested, but with more than 400,000 dead, Jews need to support a tougher response.

Both leaders also addressed the concern over Israel, with Twersky suggesting that “we could be hoisting ourselves by our own petard” by supporting an economic boycott of the Sudan. But, when the vote comes, both organizations still may support the resolution.

“What would it mean for the Jewish community-relations field to meet once a year, as we do, and not come out with anything about Darfur?” Twersky asked. “A flawed resolution might be better than no resolution at all.” London, the public affairs official at the OU, said leaders of his organization were initially wary about the resolution, consumed by the “tension” between doing something — anything — to help end the slaughter in Darfur and acting in a way that could harm Israel. But they took a closer look at the measure as it gathered support, focusing more “on the good the resolution would do. There’s more of a feeling that we can deal with our unease when the issue is so black and white and so compelling.”

The OU’s leaders have also been swayed by reading about the actions of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been urging state and local officials in the United States to divest from Iran. “Having a former Israeli prime minister urging divestment as a tool changes the dynamic a little bit,” London said.

Marshalling support in favor of the resolution are such leaders as Irit Tamir, director of government affairs at the Boston JCRC.

While divestment should only be used in extreme cases, Tamir said, she can’t imagine anything more extreme than an ongoing genocide. She also argues that an economic boycott of the Sudan would be effective, especially since Khartoum “has shown an inclination to respond to divestment,” and that adopting sanctions doesn’t remove from the table other options, such as the military one. Any approach could and should embrace several elements, she said.

The JCPA resolution follows a model adopted by the Sudan Divestment Task Force, a project of the Washington-based Genocide Intervention Network, Tamir said. The model, adopted by city councils and state legislatures around the country, targets those companies that have direct ties with the Sudanese government, impart little or no benefit to Sudanese civilians and have adopted no policy in regard to Darfur. Since American companies are already barred from ties to the Sudanese government, a prohibition that dates back to Khartoum’s support for terror in the 1990s, the targeted companies are all foreign firms, most involved in oil, energy and weapons.

The president of the American Jewish World Service, an organization that has led the Jewish community in trying to end the slaughter, said that even more critical than next week’s vote is the prominent role the Jewish community continues to play in efforts to stop the genocide. The JCPA plenum will feature a special program on Darfur, including a panel discussion, said Ruth Messinger, one of the panel’s members.

Even if the resolution fails to pass, Messinger said, she wouldn’t regard the outcome as a rupture among those concerned about Darfur within the Jewish community. “There’ll always be a difference in strategy and tactics, but if one group organizes a rally, another group circulates a petition and five other groups support divestment, I don’t see that as a rupture.”

Messinger also expressed support for the resolution, saying that a “real danger” exists of another 50,000 to 100,000 deaths in the coming months. When you’re faced with a crisis of those proportions, she added, “I’m willing to try anything and everything that might work.”

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