Los Angeles — If a local activist group has its way, Seattle could soon become the first major American city to divest from companies that provide material support to Israel.
Seattle Divest From War and Occupation, a citizens group, is angling to get an initiative on the ballot that would mandate city pension funds to divest from businesses that profit from the Iraq War, as well as from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Since late March, when initiative I-97 was approved for petition circulation by the City Attorney’s Office, local Seattle Jewish groups have coalesced to beat back the nascent effort.
The ballot initiative comes as Jewish groups and their supporters emerged victorious in recent weeks from a hard-fought Israel divestment battle with The United Methodist Church. Mainstream Jewish groups undertook a major lobbying effort — at both the grass-roots and leadership levels — to keep five anti-Israel divestment measures from passing at the Methodists’ plenum early this month. Previous efforts to stymie Israel divestment measures proposed by another mainline Protestant church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), also proved successful.
This latest battle, dealing at the local level, could prove to be a different sort of testing ground. While passage of the Seattle ballot initiative would not have significant economic consequences for the Jewish state, Jewish groups fear that its repercussions could be far-reaching.
“Its symbolic impact would be fairly large, because it’s a public body of civic employees taking a stand on an unresolved issue,” said Rabbi Anson Laytner, executive director of the Greater Seattle Chapter of the American Jewish Committee. “It could snowball to other cities, to other institutions. That is why we pushed very hard when first the Presbyterian Church, and later The United Methodist Church, also considered similar divestment activities.”
Already, Seattle-area Jewish groups have met with some initial success. A lawsuit filed May 13 by the Washington Israel Business Council, a statewide group, and StandWithUs, a national pro-Israel activist group that has been active on college campuses, resulted in the initiative’s language being amended. The coalition of Jewish groups — which also includes the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the AJCommittee — raised concerns that the language of the initiative’s title and preliminary text did not adequately make clear that I-97 targeted Israel in addition to Iraq.
“They clearly put Iraq up first, with the recognition that the Iraq War was very unpopular,” said Robert Jacobs, regional director of StandWithUs Northwest. “And they downplayed the anti-Israel aspect because they would get fewer signatures if people knew they were signing a petition against Israel.”
But the initiative’s backers contend that their intent was not to mislead. A spokeswoman for the group, Judith Kolokoff, who is Jewish, said that the initiative’s aim is simply to divest Seattle pension funds from companies turning a profit from the Iraq War and from Israel’s occupation.
“It is a single issue,” Kolokoff said. “It is really an issue of stopping investing in companies that are directly involved in the wars and occupations in the Middle East that have not been authorized by the United Nations.”
The initiative specifically targets Halliburton, the military contractor that has reaped billions from its work in Iraq, and Caterpillar, which has famously provided Israel with bulldozers, some of which have been used in the destruction of Palestinian homes, Kolokoff added. The proposed measure also calls for the city to withdraw any investment in Israeli bonds in the event that the Jewish state attacks Iran.
The initiative’s backers have six months to collect 18,000 signatures in order for the initiative to appear on the ballot. If sufficient signatures are collected quickly enough, I-97 could potentially appear on the November general election ballot. Thus far, Kolokoff said, the group has collected “several thousand” signatures.
Local Jewish leaders say that if the initiative makes it to the ballot, they are prepared to launch a large-scale campaign to defeat it. Already, StandWithUs is collecting donations to go toward such a campaign. “We’re hoping that the initiative supporters are unable to get their 18,000 signatures and that Seattle residents, by not signing the petition, make a statement that the Seattle community supports Israel,” Jacobs said. “But if they do get their signatures, then the community here is fully prepared to respond to the challenge and will try to make a case in opposition to the ballot.”