A few years ago I was walking in the woods with a friend, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town, South Africa. The Dutch Reformed Church was the leading promulgator of apartheid in South Africa, and they upheld the odious doctrine both politically and religiously almost to its end. I asked my friend what, with two decades’ hindsight, he wished his church had done differently during the apartheid years.
He replied sorrowfully, with a shake of his head: He wished his church had been willing to heed the words of rebuke of other religious communities around the world. But, he said regretfully, it was so very difficult to listen to these messages of chastisement when they felt so alone in the world.
As a rabbi who has studied in Israel and spent extended time in Israel and the West Bank over the past thirty years, witnessing first-hand some of the cruel details of Israel’s occupation, I was powerfully challenged by my friend’s words.
This week the Presbyterian Church-USA will be voting on an “overture” — their term — which is really a culmination of ten years of corporate engagement calling out three multinational corporations that manufacture equipment making it possible for the government of Israel to subjugate the people of Palestine: Hewlett-Packard, Motorola Solutions and Caterpillar.
When religious communities invest their funds, their choices bear witness to the world as they believe it should be. Choosing to remove your money from entities that offend your vision of a just world is not just an act of conscience; it is a speaking of the word.
It is powerful and painful to hear the word of conscience spoken in our direction as Jews. But we would be wise to listen, or at least to show respect, to the testimony being voiced by this selective divestment overture.
The Presbyterian Church-USA has long used the placement of their material resources to speak their vision of justice. Over the past 30 years they have spoken the language of conscientious investment to oppose apartheid in South Africa, to call for mine safety in the U.S., to oppose certain kinds of weapon manufacture and trade and to protest unjust regimes in Burma and Sudan. This year, in addition to considering divestment from the three corporations involved in the occupation of Palestine, the PC-USA will also be hearing overtures to divest from drone manufacturers and fossil fuel developers.
Their process is elaborate, one might even say ponderous. The PC-USA has been involved in escalating steps of “corporate engagement” with these three companies about their enabling of the occupation for a decade, and they are only now at the point in their process of contemplating divestment.
I will be joining a rainbow of allies within and outside the PC-USA at their General Assembly in Detroit this week to support their overture for selective divestment. Along with my friends in Jewish Voice for Peace, I will be joining hands with Palestinian and Arab-Americans, members of other churches and of the Muslim community and a particular concentration of young religious and secular activists in support of the divestment overture. The Church will also be hearing from people in the American Jewish community who oppose this overture. It is a mark of the church’s integrity that their process is so open to input from people outside their own ranks.
Our greatest hope is that the Jewish people would hear selective divestment from these corporations as what it is — a form of tochechah. It is a rebuke from our neighbors in the American religious landscape, calling us to task for a cruel policy that brings pain to their own brothers and sisters in the Palestinian Christian community and to all who live under Israeli occupation. Far from being hate speech, it is the speech of conscience.
We believe in fact that the Presbyterian Church has many new friends to gain in the Jewish community and beyond it through its courageous witness. We may not share all of our beliefs or political commitments. Such is the beauty and difficulty of coalition work, or of any kind of spiritual companionship. We have much to learn from each other, and in long-term relationships our differences are as important as our points of convergence.
We in Jewish Voice for Peace have come to the Presbyterian Church-USA in gratitude for their brave overture, in appreciation and friendship. We look forward to bearing witness and speaking out together — it will be a fine model of true interfaith partnership in action, arising from shared passion for justice and willingness to hear each other out.
Ultimately this entire effort is not about which organizations will sit at which tables with whom in the American interfaith world. It is about demolished homes and destroyed olive groves and soldiers forced to commit unconscionable acts against people who yearn for what the soldiers’ own families yearn for. It is about a seemingly intractable conflict that destroys lives. And it is about people asking themselves, personally and institutionally, how they are complicit in maintaining this unbearable status quo and using their own resources to speak out, honorably and conscientiously, to call for a change.
Rabbi Margaret Holub is co-chair of the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace.