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.