States Put Up Fight, Dollars To Defeat Divestment Push

By E.J. Kessler

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.
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New York is the latest state to adopt measures to counter the movement to force governments and universities to withdraw their investments in Israel.

The state’s second highest-ranking official, Comptroller Alan Hevesi, told the Forward that he intends to increase the investments of the state’s $105 billion pension in Israel, and has spoken to entrepreneurs and fund managers about plans to lead an economic development mission there.

“We want more jobs, business and economic growth, which are excellent strategies for advancing the peace process,” Hevesi said.

Hevesi joins politicians from Pennsylvania and California, among others, in speaking out against divestment and in increasing investments in the Jewish state even as pro-Palestinian activists increase their calls for divestment at colleges and universities.

“The divestment movement is not gaining ground. If anything, we are finding that people are rallying around investing in Israel,” said a spokesman for State of Israel Bonds, Raphael Rothstein. Rothstein said 2002 was a banner year for his organization, which sold $1.3 billion in bonds. “We sold South Carolina, where there are very few Jews, $5 million. Illinois bought $10 million.…We have close to two dozen states buying bonds. We’ve had very good support from states, labor unions and pension funds.”

While such investments help shore up Israel’s shaky economy, the rhetorical support of Israel by American officials also has been strong and welcome, Jewish officials say.

Last month, calling the divestment campaign “immoral,” Philadelphia Mayor John Street recommended to the city’s pension board that it buy $10 million more in Israel Bonds, a six-fold increase its investment in the Jewish state.

“I am particularly outraged by the immoral campaign calling for disinvestment in Israel,” Street said in a speech to the Philadelphia chapter of the Anti-Defamation League. “This initiative to injure Israel’s economy and reputation is reprehensible…. It is particularly offensive to me given the effort to analogize this divestment movement to the campaign used against South Africa,” continued Street, who is black. “I was the author of Philadelphia legislation recommending divestiture as a means to fight apartheid and the racist South African state. I find it disgraceful that some could use that model to attack the one Jewish state and only Middle East democracy and a country that, every day, is a front line in the war on terrorism.”

Two weeks ago, New York City Comptroller William Thompson announced the purchase of $5 million of Israel Bonds for the city teachers’ pension fund, its first such direct purchase.

In August, California’s State Assembly passed a bill urging the University of California, a flash point of the divestment movement, to reject calls to divest its pension funds from companies with ties to Israel. A petition calling for divestment at the university has garnered more than 6,000 signatures, including those of 211 faculty members. While the University of California is a separate entity that does not necessarily take direction from the state, the legislature “thought it was important to take a clear stance against this kind of movement,” said the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Keith Richman.

Organizers of the divestment campaign, however, say they are not discouraged, pointing to the growth of new divestment campaigns, such as one at Barnard College and Columbia University that has already gained 107 faculty signatures. An organizer of the divestment campaign at the University of California at Berkeley, law student Will Youmans, said, ”We are not going to be discouraged by the amount of power on one side.” Of the politicians taking steps to bolster Israel, he said, “history will come back to judge them.”






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