Israel-advocacy organization StandWithUs Northwest is fighting the legality of a ballot initiative (I-97), which, if it passes, would bar the City of Seattle from investing employee pension funds in certain corporations that do business with Israel.
I-97, spearheaded by a group called Seattle Divest from War and Occupation, links divestment from Israel with divestment from companies involved in the war in Iraq, such as Halliburton. It stipulates that city employee retirement funds ought not to be invested in corporations involved in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories — including the Golan Heights. The initiative also states that, in the event that Israel were to attack Iran without U.N. authorization, the city would be required to divest from Israeli government bonds.
“I know a lot of groups out there are starting to think seriously about the ways they invest their money, and we’d like the city of Seattle to do the same. That’s basically what this is about,” said Judith Kolokoff, spokesperson for I-97. “There are plenty of places to invest, not just in companies that support wars.”
Kolokoff was quick to point out that the initiative specifically targets American and Israeli companies that profit from Israel’s “occupied and besieged territories.” The initiative specifically includes the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. While the ownership of the Golan is disputed with Syria, the land itself is not occupied.
The measure would not require the city to divest from Israeli businesses entirely. However, Rob Jacobs, the regional director for StandWithUs Northwest, feels that the initiative paints an inaccurate picture of the situation in Israel by lumping it together with Iraq.
“They’re trying to vilify Israel and put it in the same camp with Iraq, and it doesn’t deserve to be there,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs worries that since I-97 pairs divestment from Israel with divestment from Iraq, voters may be signing the petition out of concern over the war, without taking into consideration the impact it would have on Israel.
Several supporters of StandWithUs who approached signature gatherers for the measure were told the initiative only had to do with Iraq, Jacobs said.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, the American Jewish Committee and the Washington Israel Business Council joined StandWithUs Northwest at a hearing at King County Superior Court on May 15 to challenge the initiative over what they considered flawed and imprecise language within the initiative. They asked the judge to revise the initiative summary to more clearly reflect its emphasis on companies that do business with Israel, as well as those involved in the Iraq war.
More than 70 members of the local Jewish community, including students from both Northwest Yeshiva High School and the Seattle Hebrew Academy, attended the hearing to show their concern over I-97.
Ultimately, Judge Steven Gonzalez, who presided over the hearing, agreed that the original title of the initiative was misleading, and wrote a revised version. However, he said he did not feel it was so misleading as to necessitate invalidating the signatures that had already been collected.
At the time of the hearing, Seattle Divest from War and Occupation had collected around 10 percent of the required 18,000 signatures. Jacobs said his suit had not requested that the already-collected signatures be dropped.
According to Ron Leibsohn, community services chair for the Jewish Federation, this month’s court appearance was only the first in several legal steps the organizations plan to take in an attempt to stop I-97 from making it to the ballot.
If the initiative cannot be blocked through legal channels, StandWithUs Northwest and the Jewish Federation intend to take their fight to the street. They have already begun fundraising efforts to cover future legal costs and an opposition campaign.
“There’s a lot of support for Israel in this community and we want to pull everyone together on this,” Leibsohn said.
Kolokoff, who is Jewish, said she was not surprised by the reaction of StandWithUs Northwest and other Israel-advocacy groups to the initiative.
“A lot of people feel to raise any question about Israel is tantamount to a crime,” she said. “We want to make it clear that this initiative is not about Israel, it’s about war and occupation and we’re targeting companies, not countries.”
Kolokoff remains optimistic that Seattle Divest from War and Occupation will get the signatures they need for I-97 to appear on the ballot. If they succeed, I-97 will be the first initiative of its kind to do so in a major U.S. city.
In 2005, a similar motion focusing exclusively on companies that do business with Israel failed to pass through the city council of Somerville, Mass.
Officials from the city retirement office did not return calls by press time concerning the economic impact and administrative ramifications the initiative would have on either employee pension funds or the companies from which those funds would be divested, were it to pass.
Still, it’s the spirit behind the initiative, rather than its practical implications that is truly worrisome to local Israel advocates.
Leibsohn said he feels it is important to stop the initiative from reaching the ballot not out of concern for the economic impact it could have on Israel, but because of the message Seattle’s divestment would send to the rest of the country.
“We wouldn’t want this to pass in Seattle and then spread to other communities,” he said. “That’s why we think it’s important to stop it here.”