by Holly Bicerano
The Presbyterian Church has received a heavy backlash recently for its decision to divest from three US companies that are aiding the Israeli occupation. The accusations against the Presbyterians and supporters of BDS have continued with little attention to detail. There is a lot to be said concerning the nature of the Presbyterian divestment decision and the veracity of claims made by critics.
Corporations have played a significant role in facilitating the occupation for profits. BDS activists charged a number of corporations with profiting from human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, including the three that the Presbyterians are targeting: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions. Their connections to human rights abuses have been extensively documented by several well-known NGOs, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Even though that matter was at the heart of the divestment decision, those who oppose the divestment resolution have said very little to dispute the disregard of these companies to human rights violations. They have chosen other strategies that I will address in this blog.
When reading some of the statements on the Presbyterian vote, it would be easy for one to misunderstand the true nature of the decision that was made. One may miss, for example, that the divestment decision was not a full boycott of Israel, upon hearing David Brog, the executive director for Christians United for Israel (CUFI), say that the “the idea that the Presbyterians would divest from the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population is actually protected and growing is obscene.” The divestment was targeted at the profiteers of the occupation, but Brog discusses it as if it was aimed at Israel as a whole and fails to distinguish between Christians who live in Israel and Christians who live under Israeli occupation. He presents a black and white view of Israel’s treatment of Christians, neglecting to mention the oppression that Palestinian Christians face each day under occupation.
Such accusations have also revealed a sort of paranoia that exists in the pro-Israel community about the supposed “singling out” of Israel. Some pro-Israel organizations have spread deliberate, defamatory lies about BDS activists that mischaracterize the work many of them do. A common stereotype is that BDS supporters do not care about other human rights abuses happening elsewhere. The intentions are clear: to portray BDS supporters as “anti-Semitic” for supposedly targeting Israel while ignoring other human rights issues. This stereotype is especially useful in revealing the limitations of anti-BDS arguments because it is easy to verify its falsehood just by getting to know people who support BDS campaigns or taking notice of the collaborative efforts between pro-BDS organizations and other activist groups. This holds true with the Presbyterian Church, as well, which is works on many other human rights causes.
In truth, economic pressure is a common tactic that has been used on countless occasions to achieve political objectives. Corporate divestment has been an invaluable tool in labor rights, civil rights, and anti-war efforts. A few left-leaning pro-Israel groups, such as J Street, see divestment in black and white. J Street creates a semblance of moralism by deploring the occupation while also criticizing the efforts of others to do something about it. It emphasizes the use of US diplomacy within the framework of the “peace process” to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution, but it does not acknowledge the one-state, apartheid-like reality on the ground that severely hinders their two-state objective. The occupation is a Catch 22 situation: the systems of oppression will first have to be challenged before there can be a stable, long-term arrangement agreed on by both peoples. I see no way to end the occupation other than targeting corporations and institutions that enable it to continue.
Some of the criticism has relied on the problematic assumption that Israel’s policies in the occupied territories are purely defensive responses to Palestinian terrorism. StandWithUs wrote that these companies were “suppliers of equipment that saves Israeli lives every day” and that the Presbyterians “decided to condemn Israel’s daily efforts to keep its civilians alive and contributed to a movement that opposes Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.” It is rather cynical to argue that the cooperation of corporations in Israel’s settlement enterprise is defensive when the construction of settlements and the use of collective punishment are offensive policies that control and subjugate Palestinians.
Perhaps the most common accusation made by critics was that the Presbyterians have aligned themselves with those who delegitimize and demonize Israel. CUFI executive director David Brog stated, “The Presbyterians’ vote to blame Israel and Israel alone for its conflict with its neighbors is downright absurd.” StandWithUs alleged that they had “lent support to extremists who oppose peace, and ruptured interfaith relations.” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that “PCUSA chooses to flex its moral muscles by aiding and abetting those pledged to do away with the Jewish state.”
These claims are highly problematic because they attempt to frame the Presbyterians as “guilty by association” with those involved in the global BDS movement. The fact that several organizations have chosen to use this line of irrational thought tells a lot about their mutual tactics to defame those involved in efforts to oppose the occupation.
It is also important to mention that one cannot think of the BDS movement, or any other movement, as a monolithic entity. As another example, there were prominent leaders in the civil rights movement who supported the use of violent resistance. But, that did not mean that the majority did. Likewise, the BDS movement unites those who are committed to three broad goals: ending the occupation, equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and the right of return (to the extent possible upon taking practical constraints into account). The individuals and organizations involved in the movement encompass a combination of many different backgrounds and viewpoints.
The popular discourse on the Presbyterian divestment decision has been dominated by claims that are largely inaccurate and misleading. Critics have failed to address the actual reasons why the Presbyterians divested from these corporations, choosing instead to divert attention away from the subject and circulate disinformation.
by Carolyn Klaasen (pictured above, left, with Union M.Div. student Emily Brewer)
On June 20 I sat in the stands of the Cobo Convention Center in Detroit, hands gripping those of my neighbor, waiting as the votes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) were slowly tallied on screen. When the final number appeared, those of us sitting in the stands collapsed in tears and hugs. By a narrow margin of seven votes, the PC (USA) had just decided to divest $21 million from three American companies tied to the occupation of the West Bank.
This vote made the PC (USA) the largest denomination to divest from companies related to the occupation, and was front-page news in the New York Times the next morning. Since then, the church has faced a heavy backlash as Jewish communal institutions have decried the measure as anti-Semitic, accused the Presbyterians of unjustly singling out Israel, or portrayed the church as an unwitting pawn in the global Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. (For the record, I align myself with that movement; the Presbyterians do not. Learn more here.)
Those of us who were Jews at the Assembly have been accused of providing “cover” for the Presbyterians, manipulating our Presbyterian partners, or ignored altogether as reports selectively quote Jews opposed to this measure.
What I have experienced as I joined the Presbyterians on the tail end of their decade-long journey to divestment, however, tells a rather different story. It is a tale of integrity, as Presbyterians have worked to align their investments with their conscience and honor their global and interfaith partners throughout that process.
The story begins at the 2004 General Assembly, when the Presbyterians directed their Commission on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) to identify and begin a process of corporate engagement with any companies involved in non-peaceful pursuits in Israel, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. This is a familiar process for the church, which has a long and proud history of corporate engagement and socially responsible investing. Presbyterians maintain a divestment list of companies involved in the production of military supplies, complicit in human rights violations, or that produce tobacco. It has previously engaged with and finally divested from corporations because of their actions in specific countries, including South Africa and Sudan. Given the church’s longstanding commitment to a just peace in Israel/Palestine, as well as its cherished relationships with interfaith partners and Arab Christians, the church was understandably concerned with the question of whether its own investments in the region were at odds with its goals of pursuing peace.
The Commission identified three American companies within the church’s portfolio engaged in non-peaceful pursuits in the region: Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are included within military aid to Israel, weaponized, and used to illegally uproot Palestinian homes and olive trees; Motorola Solutions, which develops surveillance systems installed around Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank; and Hewlett-Packard, which provides ongoing support and maintenance to biometric ID systems installed at Israeli checkpoints within the West Bank.
During the years that MRTI engaged these corporations they not only refused to change their practices, but in some cases actually increased their participation in these non-peaceful pursuits. MRTI finally declared that these three corporations were unwilling to change their practices, and recommended that the church divest all of its shares.
One of the truly powerful commitments of the Presbyterian Church is that it does not act in a vacuum, and as they met this year to consider divestment they welcomed in dozens of multifaith and international partners to be present and active in their discernment process. This included a full spectrum of Jewish opinions, which was how I ended up at General Assembly along with other members of Jewish Voice for Peace. We joined forces with interfaith activists on the ground in Detroit as well as advocates for divestment within the Presbyterian Church, including my good friend and fellow Union student Emily Brewer, to form a coalition of Interfaith Partners in Action. Amidst threats from Jewish community leaders that a vote to divest would endanger the church’s interfaith relationships, our coalition modeled our hopes for respect and partnership among our religious traditions in working together for justice.
Multiple times throughout the week, our Jewish delegation was moved to tears by our experiences in this coalition. In our conversations with commissioners and advisory delegates, we shared our own stories of discernment. As they asked for advice, we repeatedly told them “follow your conscience. You don’t need my permission to do what you think is right.”
We prayed with our Presbyterian partners, both privately and publically, as we sought strength and calm during the hardest moments of the week. We helped each other laugh off the hate tweets and messages we received from opponents of divestment, reaffirming our commitments to modeling love in the face of conflict. As news of the escalating crackdown in the West Bank poured in, we compared news and shared our worries. And when the Assembly voted in favor of gay marriage, we enjoyed the unexpected privilege of sharing in the celebration with our Presbyterian partners.
I was especially happy to be there with fellow Union friends, not only working closely with Emily Brewer but also cheering on Samantha Gonzalez-Block as she argued for divestment from fossil fuels, celebrating the adoption of a statement on interfaith relations that alumnus Aaron Stauffer helped craft, and chatting with PhD student Derrick McQueen during breaks.
When the motion concerning divestment came to the floor, we listened with sympathy as Presbyterians shared their fears and concerns. Would Caterpillar employees who were members of the church feel rejected? How would this impact their cherished relationships with Jewish family members, friends, and colleagues? Would their actions be misinterpreted as divestment from Israel? We silently cheered on commissioners as they spoke in favor of divestment, arguing that the church could not pray for peace while investing in occupation. A white Afrikaner thanked the church for divesting from South African apartheid 30 years earlier, stating that “when you divested from apartheid, you invested in my humanity.”
By the time debate ended and it was time to vote, those of us sitting in the stands gripping each others’ hands had come to deeply love our partners and had tremendous respect for the process of discernment we had witnessed. Despite what some have said, this was not a decision made out of naiveté, maliciousness, or hubris. What unfolded was rather a prayerful and inclusive struggle that left no voice out of the discussion as this church sought to follow its conscience.
By Elisheva Goldberg
Yesterday, Jane Eisner, with whom I most often agree, wrote about the Presbyterian vote to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions. These are three companies that reportedly participate in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by providing heavy equipment for the construction of the barrier-fence, the destruction of Palestinian homes and building settlement roads. The vote passed at this year’s biennial assembly by a slim margin of 310-303.
Eisner wrote about an implied argument of Netanyahu’s in a speech he gave to a group of journalists last Tuesday night at the first Jewish Media Summit. The Prime Minister, in a “snide tone” according to Eisner, had two suggestions for the Presbyterians whom he invited for a tour of the region (Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq): “One, make sure the bus is an armor-plated bus, and two, don’t say you’re Christian.”
This implied that the Presbyterian decision to divest held Israel to an unfair double standard. For Eisner that meant something very stark and very disturbing: the Presbyterian vote, by virtue of the fact that it singled out Israel while ignoring the abuses perpetrated by Israel’s neighbors, particularly against Christians, was “biased, hypocritical and, yes, anti-Semitic.”
But I’m not sure it is. Far be it from me to claim expertise in identifying anti-Semitism, but it’s worth noting that the resolution includes a line that explicitly distances the Church from “an alignment with the overall strategy of global BDS,” a movement which can at times arguably be accused of real, historically recognizable anti-Semitic tropes (I personally do not support BDS for reasons explained here, here and here). And while I’ll admit that neither this distancing nor even explicit statements of philo-Semitism are any kind of proof — one can claim to love bananas and still hate bananas — I’d like to point out a few things about the perhaps more specific argument of “double standard” that the Presbyterians purportedly uphold.
First, there’s the obvious but potentially unsatisfying clarification that the Church has a fairly long list of companies it urges divestment from for varied reasons — primarily “due to their involvement in military-related production, tobacco, or human rights violations.” The church has, at various times, divested from companies in South Africa, Burma and Sudan. Their latest push is for divestment from fossil fuels. This means that, on some level, the Presbyterians aren’t taking aim at Israel alone, nor (at least through this bill) at Israel proper. They’re pointing their nonviolent weapons at occupation-enablers, cancer-spreaders and munitions-makers — perhaps even some of those that enable the continuation of the sickening violence in, say, Syria, where, Eisner says, nearly half a million Christians have fled since the crisis began in 2011.
Second, it seems to me that to focus on the vastly more repressive countries around Israel is to miss the point of this kind of symbolic divestment. As Eisner notes, this vote was not aimed at putting any real kind of dent in the Israeli economy — pulling $21 million just doesn’t get that far. The move is far more about ethics, publicity and awareness than it is a punch to the Zionist purse. The body responsible for implementing “socially responsible” policies has a name that belies this: it’s called the Mission Responsibility Through Investment; its website describes how “the Lordship of Jesus Christ is at the heart of what we do…direct[ing] all aspects of our lives including how we earn, use, and invest our money.” For them, divesting from the occupation — in the very region Jesus walked — is what Jesus would do.
More to the point, a Church boycott of Assad would not only have been financially ineffective, it would have had no impact on the discourse. It’s not that Assad shouldn’t be “obliged” and “expected” to meet the same humanitarian standards as Israel, its that no one needs to be convinced of his violation of those standards, and then some. The Church knows that.
Larry Derfner once put it this way: “These other states [Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia] are, indeed, worse criminals than Israel, [but] no popular movement is needed to convince the public and political leadership in the West that what these regimes are doing is wrong and ought to be stopped.”
Earlier in the Syrian civil war, the United States called on countries to stop buying Assad’s oil and gas; the EU considered sanctions. Governments were getting involved, and that involvement had the potential for real financial, and therefore presumably political, effect. Should the Presbyterians have thrown their divestment hat into that ring, it would have been ineffectual at best, and dangerous at worst. President Obama isn’t talking, laughing, and matching strides with a despicable despot like Assad, and for good reason. But he is with Benjamin Netanyahu. And considering Congress’s relationship to these leaders — for Assad, a series of air strikes; for Netanyahu, between twenty-nine and thirty standing ovations — the Church saw a space in the American political conversation where they could have impact, draw attention to injustice, and they went for it.
Which brings me to my last argument against the double-standard claim — an argument articulated by Peter Beinart last year when the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israel. He wrote then that all political protest constitutes a double standard — and that’s okay. Boycotting Israel and not China is arguably akin to Jewish groups in the 1970s demonstrating for Soviet Jews, and not for, say, a free Tibet. He asks, “Were [the Jewish groups’] actions illegitimate because they weren’t also protesting Idi Amin and Pol Pot, who were at the time committing far worse crimes?” He goes on to remind us of a more recent protest:
In 2010, dozens of cities, performers and professional groups boycotted Arizona because of its draconian immigration law. Were their actions immoral because they didn’t first boycott Zimbabwe? In the mid-1990s, the United States waged humanitarian war in Bosnia and did nothing in Rwanda, where the slaughter was worse. At the time, United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali suggested that this constituted a double standard, perhaps even a racial one, and he was right. But I’m still glad America stopped genocide somewhere.
His conclusion is that “people are morally inconsistent” and that “the roots of this inconsistency may be irrational, even disturbing, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t act against the abuses they care about most.”
Whether we like it or not, Israel is becoming an increasingly domestic issue for a much larger constituency than just American Jews. Israel is a biblical issue, a contemporary issue, and as groups like Christians United for Israel join the mainstream “pro-Israel” American crowd, pushing for ever-more hawkish legislation, mainline churches are going to push back. Jews — from J Street and Jane Eisner to Rick Jacobs, the ADL and the Wiesenthal Center — have every right to oppose Presbyterian divestment, and they should certainly call out anti-Semitism when it rears its head. But I don’t think that’s what this vote was about.
In response to “How a radical anti-Israel Jewish group colluded with the U.S. Presbyterian Church” (Eric Yoffie, June 23).
Rabbi Eric Yoffie refuses to grapple with the reality of the occupation or to address the role Jewish American institutions play in repressing concrete actions to end Israel’s ongoing human rights violations against Palestinians. How sad, and revealing, that instead of engaging with the deeply critical message and moral issues being raised by the Presbyterian vote to divest, he resorts to ad hominem attacks against Jewish Voice for Peace and the Presbyterian Church.
We honor the deliberate and thoughtful process that led the church to vote to divest from three American companies, in accordance with their ethical investment principles. We were proud to play our part in supporting their process, but the decision was their own. To suggest otherwise is insulting and indicative of Yoffie’s approach to interfaith partnerships.
Throughout the weeklong General Assembly, no one from Yoffie’s movement made a single concrete suggestion about how to end the occupation — the growth of the settlements, the daily indignities or the structural violence against Palestinians. Instead, they used their voice to attempt to threaten and bully the Presbyterians into voting against their conscience.
The Union for Reform Judaism prominently displays a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on its website. The Reform movement is justifiably proud of taking action during the civil rights struggle. How sad that the leadership of the Reform movement today finds itself defending inaction, and therefore promoting injustice. Is the movement’s only response to the Presbyterian vote to attack Jewish Voice for Peace rather than recognize the merits of heartfelt and fact-based deliberations?
Despite Yoffie’s protestations, Jewish Voice for Peace is increasingly attractive to more and more Jewish Americans, including many within the Reform movement. In fact, we welcome new members daily. How beautiful to see so many Jews want to be part of an organization that supports equal rights and justice for Palestinians, Israelis and all people — in the best of Jewish tradition.
Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director, Jewish Voice for Peace and Donna Nevel, board member, Jewish Voice for Peace.
By Brant Rosen
Jews and Presbyterians pray together during deliberations at the 2014 Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit
In the wake of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent decision to divest from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation, Jewish establishment leaders have been expressing their displeasure toward the PC(USA) in no uncertain terms.
Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman stated last week that church leaders have “fomented an atmosphere of open hostility to Israel.” Rabbi Noam Marans director of inter-religious relations at the American Jewish Committee, declared that “the PC(USA) decision is celebrated by those who believe they are one step closer to a Jew-free Middle East.” And Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, publicly accused the PC(USA) of having a “deep animus” against “both the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
Given such extreme rhetoric, it may come as a surprise to many that the same overture that called for the Presbyterian Foundation and Board of Pensions to divest from Caterpillar, Inc., Hewett-Packard and Motorola Solutions also included the following resolutions:
– (To) reaffirm Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders in accordance with the United Nations resolutions;
– (To) declare its commitment to a two-state solution in which a secure and universally recognized State of Israel lives alongside a free, viable, and secure state for the Palestinian people;
– (To) reaffirm PC(USA)’s commitment to interfaith dialog and partnerships with the American Jewish, Muslim friends and Palestinian Christians and call for all presbyteries and congregations within the PC(USA) to include interfaith dialogue and relationship-building as part of their own engagement in working for a just peace.
– (To) urge all church institutions to give careful consideration to possible investments in Israel-Palestine that advance peace and improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis.”
Do these sound like the words of a “hostile” church committed to a “Jew-free Middle East?”
In truth, these are the words of a religious community struggling in good faith to walk the path of justice while still remaining sensitive to the concerns of their Jewish sisters and brothers.
Such a description certainly comports with my own personal experience. I attended the Presbyterian General Assembly last week as part of the Jewish Voice for Peace delegation and had lengthy conversations with numerous GA commissioners. When I asked them to share their feelings about the divestment overture, the majority responded with a similar refrain: in their hearts they wanted to vote in favor, but they hesitated because they were worried what it might do to their relationships with their Jewish family and friends and colleagues.
This theme occurred repeatedly during the committee and plenum debates as well. Commissioners who opposed the overture relied less on political arguments than upon their concern for their personal relationships with Jews and with the Jewish community at large. Many commissioners who spoke in favor of the overture expressed similar concerns even as they decided to cast their votes as a matter of deeply held conscience.
In the end, the process that led up to the final vote on divestment was one of genuine discernment and faithful witness. To be sure, the final wording of the overture is a nuanced statement by a church that clearly seeks to follow its sacred mission of justice in Israel/Palestine even as it cherishes its long-standing relationship with the Jewish community.
As a Jew, I was deeply saddened that so many Jewish establishment leaders saw fit to resort to what can only be called emotional blackmail in order to fight against a Presbyterian overture that they didn’t like. But for all the undue pressure, I have no doubt that the heavy-handed nature of these tactics ultimately contributed in no small way to the success of the final divestment overture.
Notably, during the plenum discussion, one commissioner commented that he was “offended” to see some Jewish opponents to the overture wearing T-shirts that said “Love us or Leave Us.” Another asked if Reform movement President Rabbi Rick Jacob’s offer to broker a meeting in Jerusalem between Presbyterian leaders and Benyamin Netanyahu if they voted down the overture was somehow a thinly veiled threat.
As a Jewish supporter of divestment, I will say without hesitation that this vote was first and foremost a victory for Palestinians, who continue to suffer under Israel’s illegal and immoral occupation. On a secondary level, however, we might say that this was a victory for a religious community that refused to let its sacred convictions be stymied by cynical pressure.
As for us, the Jewish community is left with the very real question: Are we truly prepared to write off one of the largest American Christian denominations over this vote – a vote that was taken in good faith and with profound deliberation? And on a deeper level, we might well ask ourselves honestly, have the Jewish communal establishment’s bullying tactics finally reached the end of their usefulness?
Indeed, when it comes to the issue of Israel/Palestine, the unwritten rule of the Jewish establishment has always been, “toe our line or feel our wrath.” By voting for divestment, the PC(USA) declared itself ready to stand down this ultimatum.
There is every reason to believe other denominations will now follow suit. Will our community continue to respond with cynical threats or will we finally be ready to model an approach to community relations grounded in trust, understanding and mutual respect?
Monday, 16 June 2014, 5:36 pm
Presbyterian Divestment – A Jewish Perspective
by Cantor Michael Davis, Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council
June 15, 2014
The first time I wore a kippa and talit outside of a synagogue setting was four year ago outside a hotel in downtown Chicago overlooking the Chicago river. I was singing with a group of my colleagues, local Reform cantors, to protest the mistreatment of hotel workers. I had the privilege of getting to know worker leaders, edit a national clergy report into worker conditions and organize my fellow clergy in Chicago. This was an exciting time – we took over the lobby of a Hyatt hotel with a flashmob, met with senior executives, collaborated with Christian clergy, traveled to other cities and on and on. Last summer, four years after their last contract expired, the Hyatt workers finally won a fair labor contract from management.
The lessons I learned from this successful worker justice campaign have relevance for me in thinking about how to end Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank.
The lasting lesson this experience taught me was that in any dispute between two parties of disparate power, the more powerful party will object to the involvement of third parties. In the case of the Hyatt labor dispute, management argued that this should be resolved between management and labor; the public should stay out of it. Israel, is by far, the more powerful side in the Israel-Palestine conflict: militarily, financially, politically. In Israel’s case, American Jews are told that only the Israelis have the right to an opinion on the Palestinians. After all, their future is at stake not ours. Americans, including Jews, have been accused of anti-Semitism or being fellow travelers of Jew-haters. We are told to stay out of it.
Yet our involvement in Israel-Palestine as Jews and as Americans is necessary and valuable. In the case of Hyatt, management was clearly disturbed by the public’s engagement with the issue. Hyatt Corporation’s most senior executives devoted many hours to meetings with clergy – particularly rabbis – who supported the workers. In the case of Israel, the international movement speaking up for Palestinian human rights is of great concern to Israel.
In Detroit, in a couple of days, the Presbyterian General Assembly will debate divesting from three companies that are complicit in Israel’s military occupation and colonization of the West Bank.
I, an Israeli national who served three years in the IDF, and who has served the Jewish community in Chicago for over 20 years, support the right of our Presbyterian friends to freely explore their conscience on divesting from American companies that benefit from Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank. I will be at the Presbyterian General Assembly arguing for divestment. I believe, along with a growing number of Jews and Israelis that BDS is the best non-violent option to stop the downward spiral to inevitable violence. For Jews – and for Christians – divestment is a principled position. As a supporter of BDS myself, I know how much effort the mainstream Jewish community is putting into shutting down this debate and excluding BDS supporters from the Jewish community. I would challenge those who are trying to shut down the Presbyterian debate to show how the motives of those supporting divestment are anything less than honest. This is unworthy of us as Jews and particularly egregious when directed at our Christian neighbors.
First, we should note that under international and American law, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is illegal. Any business involved in the occupation is therefore illegal too. That alone should be enough to keep American companies away from the Occupation. The Israeli government argues that the occupation is necessary in order to keep Israel safe. How does building Jewish cities on stolen Palestinian land or the daily harassment and humiliation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians make Israelis more safe? All indications are that antagonizing Palestinians imperils Israeli lives.
But more importantly, for us as Americans and Jews, the argument itself is irrelevant. The law does not recognize Israel’s perceived self-interest as legitimate grounds for making another population suffer. Jewish tradition teaches the same lesson. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, we read of the education of the Prophet Jonah. Jonah was commanded by God to prophesy to the city of Nineveh: let them repent their evil ways and be saved. But Jonah boards a boat to escape that mission. Rashi on the first verse of the Book of Jonah explains Jonah’s thinking: “the non-Jews will likely repent. If I prophesy to them, they will turn to God. And so, I will have shown Israel in a poor light since the Jews do not heed the words of the prophets”. Jonah was willing to let a non-Jewish city be destroyed, fearing what saving them might mean for the Jews. The ancient rabbis selected this reading for Yom Kippur to teach us that even when saving others in immediate danger now may imperil Jews later, we must choose to save our fellow human beings. If that is the reason for the Occupation, then Jewish tradition rejects that argument.
Let us also remember that the Presbyterian resolution does not call for divestment from the State of Israel, from Israeli companies, from individual Israelis or even from Jewish-owned companies. Rather the resolution calls for divestment from three American multinationals implicated in documented human rights abuses.
The Presbyterian General Assembly will consider divestment from three companies: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola.
Caterpillar (CAT) sells heavy equipment used by the Israeli government in military and police actions to demolish Palestinian homes and agricultural lands. It also sells heavy equipment used in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the construction of illegal Israeli settlements, roads solely used by illegal Israeli seIlers, and the construction of the Separation Wall extending across the 1967 “Green Line” into East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The number of outstanding demolition orders in East Jerusalem alone has been estimated at up to 20,000.
Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) provides biometric ID equipment to monitor only Palestinians at several checkpoints inside the West Bank. 2.4 million West Bank Palestinians are required to submit to lengthy waits as well as the mandatory biometric scanning, while Israelis and other passport holders transit without scanning or comparable delays. The biometric ID is also used to regulate residency rights of non-Jews in Jerusalem. Since 1967, Israel has revoked more than 14,000 Jerusalem residency cards, with 4,557 being revoked in 2008 alone. HPQ sells hardware to the Israeli Navy that enables it to maintain the ongoing naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. This blockade has included interdicting humanitarian supplies and attacking Palestinian fishermen.
Motorola Solutions (MSI) Motorola Solutions provided an integrated communications system, known as “Mountain Rose,” to the Israeli government which uses it for military communications. It also provided ruggedized cell phones to the Israeli army utilized in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The company also sold wide-area surveillance systems for installation in the illegal Israeli settlements.
Plainly put, corporate revenue is built on the back of Palestinian suffering. And Jewish tradition is clear in its rejection of ill-gained profits.
Caterpillar profits from the destruction of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of Palestinian orchards by supplying the armor-plated and weaponized bulldozers that are used for such demolition work. Destroying homes is not a Jewish value.
Motorola Solutions profits from many aspects of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including developing perimeter surveillance systems installed around dozens of Jewish- only settlements in the West Bank, built on Palestinian land. Defending stolen property is not a Jewish value.
Hewlett-Packard provides ongoing support and maintenance to a biometric ID system installed in Israeli checkpoints in the occupied West Bank which deprive Palestinians of the freedom of movement in their own land, allows the Israeli military occupation to grant or deny special privileges to the civilians under its control, and denies residency rights to a number of nonJews in Jerusalem by virtue of not being Jewish. Discrimination and segregation are not Jewish values.
Christians, like Jews, have a special interest in what happens in the Holy Land and a special responsibility to its peoples. The Presbyterian Church should be free debate the issues on their merits without fear of being branded as anti-Semites or any of the other harsh responses that have been circulating recently in the Jewish community. Friends allow friends to have their own opinion and to freely discuss their ethical choices.
Let us show our Christian neighbors the same respect that we expect and enjoy from them. Hillel said: Love your neighbor as yourself, this is the whole Torah.
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.
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN, The New York Times
JUNE 12, 2014
The pension board of the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church, has decided to divest its shares in a British company that supplies security equipment to Israel for use in prisons and in the occupied West Bank.
The move comes as Israel has been trying to fend off resolutions by academic institutions, businesses and church groups to divest from companies that do business with Israel.
The Methodist Church’s investment in the company, G4S, involves only about $110,000 worth of stock holdings, said David Wildman, executive secretary for human rights and racial justice for the church’s General Board of Global Ministries. But the action is intended to have a larger symbolic impact, adding to the pressure on Israel to stop building settlements and end the occupation.
“We are on the side of people in Palestine and Israel — Jews, Muslims and Christians — who are seeking nonviolent means of resolving this conflict,” said the Rev. John Wagner, convener of the United Methodist Kairos Response, one of the several church agencies that encouraged the pension board to divest.
Methodists voted overwhelmingly at their convention in Tampa, Fla., two years ago against divestment in three other companies that do business with Israel: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola. This time, the church’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits acted on its own, and it may consider further action when the directors meet in July, church leaders said.
Next week, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), at its general assembly in Detroit, will consider a motion to divest from three companies that supply equipment to Israel. At its assembly two years ago, a divestment resolution was narrowly defeated, by a vote of 333 to 331, with two abstentions.
Jewish leaders who oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known as B.D.S., and a few who support it, plan to be in Detroit to lobby the delegates.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has been invited to speak to the assembly. He said in a recent interview that “B.D.S. is an attack on the very legitimacy of the state of Israel, and it’s not simply a strategy or a tactic.”
A United Methodist Church fund is divesting from a multinational security firm that activists have criticized for its work in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The church’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits is selling its stock in the U.K.-based G4S, which provides equipment and services for Israeli prisons, checkpoints and settlements in the West Bank. The Methodist board, which manages an investment portfolio of $20 billion, has $110,000 in G4S shares, church officials said Thursday.
“This is the first time that a United Methodist general agency has included human rights violations related to Israel’s illegal settlements and military occupation in a decision to divest from a company,” said David Wildman, executive secretary for human rights and racial justice at the church’s General Board of Global Ministries. “It’s part of our efforts at examining how we are approaching human rights issues and the longstanding Israeli occupation and settlements.”
G4S, which operates in 125 countries, is the world’s largest private security company and a frequent target of activists, in particular for its work in the Middle East. Earlier this week, the firm that manages investments for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Trust said it has likewise divested from G4S.
The company did not return a call from The Huffington Post seeking comment.
The Methodist church makes its move as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) prepares to tackle a similar question at its General Assembly, starting this weekend in Detroit. The church is scheduled to debate divesting $17 million from Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar and Motorola Solutions. Pro-divestment Presbyterians, who have been pushing for divestment from the companies for several years, argue that they profit from violence in the Palestinian territories.
Methodists have also tried to divest from those three companies. A motion on the issue failed to pass at the church’s last General Conference in Tampa, Florida, two years ago. Members expect the church will debate divestment again at its next General Conference, set for 2016 in Portland, Oregon.
by Jaweed Kaleem