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.