Coauthored by Michael Zigmond and Naftali Kaminski
Last week we attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) at the Pittsburgh Convention Center to listen to presentations and discussions of two resolutions of great relevance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: namely, the boycott of products produced in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the divestment from corporations whose products are used to suppress the legitimate rights of Palestinians in that area.
We were impressed with the care with which the resolutions were formulated and the responsible discussion on both sides of the issue. A committee charged with ensuring that PCUSA investments are socially responsible had engaged for many years with corporations whose products are used to support the occupation. The committee sought commitments to change those practices. Despite some successes, the committee failed to reach an accord with three corporations, Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions, and therefore recommended that the PCUSA divest those stocks, while continuing to invest in many other companies that do business in Israel and the occupied territories but do not directly support non-peaceful aspects of the occupation. In the case of a boycott, the Committee echoed a recent decision by the United Methodist Church and recommended a call on all nations to prohibit import of all Israeli products coming from the occupied territories, including popular AHAVA cosmetic products.
The Jewish establishment of Pittsburgh attempted to influence the Presbyterians’ ethical financial decisions, dedicating many months to defeating these resolutions. They claimed that the resolutions did not recognize the complexity of the situation, were too one-sided, and did not take into consideration the misdeeds of some Palestinians. They threatened that approving such resolutions would hurt Jewish-Presbyterian relationships. Sadly, even Jewish center-left organizations such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now published statements at the last minute that represented the resolutions were part of the larger boycott, divestment, and sanction movement directed towards Israel as a whole and labeled it “a distraction” reminiscent of “global anti-Semitism.”
Let us set the record straight regarding these arguments. First, the issues are not complicated. Israel occupied a large amount of territory in June 1967 as a consequence of a military conflict. The international laws regarding such occupation are clear: An occupying government must maintain law and order and ensure basic services. It is not allowed to annex any of the land, move its own citizens into the territories, or take any of the natural resources (e.g., water). The Israeli government has followed none of these legal requirements. Instead, it has continued to build settlements and roads off-limits to West Bank Palestinians, construct portions of a separation wall on occupied Palestinian land, annex a large portion of the occupied land surrounding Jerusalem, accelerate the destruction of Palestinian homes, and divert water from Palestinians to the Jewish settlements and to Israel. Each of these actions is illegal, and we have not heard anyone present evidence to the contrary.
Second, the claim that such actions are one-sided is misleading. The U.S. administration has strong legal measures in place that prohibit U.S. companies from supporting violence by Palestinians. And if there were such companies, the PCUSA would undoubtedly divest from them.
Third, although some in this world are indeed anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic, the movement in favor of targeted divestment requires no such sentiments and over the last several days of the PCUSA General Assembly we never heard a single word against the Israeli people, let alone Jews in general. Instead, the commissioners consistently emphasized the overriding importance of alleviating suffering through the establishment of a just, peaceful solution to the conflict — a profoundly pro-Israeli position.
On our visits to the General Assembly we met with Jewish supporters of the resolutions: young and old volunteers, including a Holocaust survivor; rabbis from Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization with a staff of only seven, that is rapidly becoming the largest Jewish grassroots organization in the U.S.; and local Jewish activists, some even from groups that officially oppose the resolutions. In contrast, there was a complete absence of any visible grassroots group opposing boycott or divestment. Despite the campaign of hyperbole and misinformation about the resolutions, Jews in Pittsburgh remained largely indifferent. Like their Christian neighbors, they seemed more interested in the recent success of the Pirates, the rising temperatures, and the economy.
At the General Assembly, the resolution to boycott settlement products passed with an overwhelming majority of 71 percent. The recommendation to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions was defeated by two votes out of 664, although a resolution to create a personal divestment option for pension holders, to be voted upon in two years, passed by 57 percent, suggesting to us that whereas the Presbyterians were split on a church-wide decision to divest from companies that support the occupation, they clearly saw the moral imperative of allowing individuals to do so. Later, however, it was overturned on a procedural technicality.
Despite the defeat of the divestment resolution, the Assembly’s approval of a boycott on settlement products represents a major victory to those of us who oppose the occupation. For years, many have said that if only Palestinians engaged in non-violent resistance they would win their freedom. Yet, the emergence of such resistance has not slowed Israeli settlement construction and has not brought Palestinians any closer to real statehood.
Supporting those who promote the end of the occupation by non-violent measures is in the best interests of Israel; targeted boycotts and divestments are precisely such measures. Concrete action may prevent deterioration into another bloody cycle of violence and eventually bring us closer to a just and equitable peace in the Middle East. We pray that the pro-peace, anti-occupation momentum we witnessed here in Pittsburgh will ultimately triumph, for the sake of Israelis, for the sake of Palestinians, for the sake of all of us.
Michael Zigmond is an American scientist and long-time member of the Pittsburgh Jewish community with strong ties to Israel. Naftali Kaminski is an Israeli Physician-Scientist now living in Pittsburgh. Both are members of the Middle East Peace Forum of Pittsburgh and blog at the Pittsburgh Middle-East Blog www.pittmep.com.