Presbyterians Make Right Choice on Israel Divestment

Many religious progressives don’t know what to do about Israel. This is what I’ve learned as I’ve crisscrossed the country talking with them: they’re gravely concerned about Israeli policies in (choose your political designation) the West Bank/the Occupied Territories/Occupied Palestine, but they’re also aware that the situation is extraordinarily complex, and that they risk alienating Jewish allies—and even engaging in anti-Semitism—if they misspeak or misstep.

Activists, meanwhile, are shrill. Right-wing “pro-Israel” activists decry any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, while left-wing “pro-Palestine” activists call Israel an apartheid state. 

This week, all three of these parties—the Right, the Left, and the confused Center-Left—danced for awhile at the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). At the urging of the denomination’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN), a committee of the GA voted 36 to 11 to divest from three companies—Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard—because, as the IPMN puts it, they “profit from non-peaceful pursuits in the occupied Palestinian territories.” Yesterday, however, the GA rejected that measure, citing concerns that “divestment would cause irreparable harm to Jewish-Christian relations.”

This was the right result. 

First, let’s be clear that divestment would be a purely symbolic act. It would have little economic impact, and would, instead, be about sending a strong message of moral condemnation and outrage. What is that message? That Israel should be forced to change its policies by the international community. 

Symbolic acts are fine, and exactly the business of a religious denomination. But this message is so strong, and so disproportionate, that it does, indeed, make many Jews feel like Israel is being unfairly targeted. There’s no secondary boycott of companies selling goods to China, for example, despite its occupation of Tibet.

More importantly, however, the strong and unequivocal message of divestment is inappropriate for a complicated political/military situation which does not reduce to simple oppressor/victim dichotomies. As I have written about many times, I oppose Israel’s settlement policies, and the current Israeli government’s unacceptable conditions for a return to talks with the Palestinians (namely, that they take place “with no preconditions”—i.e. setting aside the last twenty years of progress and starting from scratch). 

But Israel cannot be defined solely by its conflict with Palestine. It is also fearful of the Arab Spring turning hostile, and of a nuclear Iran. Over the last few weeks, hundreds of small katyusha rockets have been fired from Hamas-led Gaza into southern Israel—which may yet lead to another bloody incursion by the Israeli Defense Forces. Although I am a progressive and oppose the current center-right coalition government, one can certainly appreciate that now is a difficult moment to demand—in the stark terms of divestment—unilateral action that would increase the insecurities of the Jewish state.

Which brings me to the reason the GA stated for its decision: harming relationships with Jews. Yes, some Jews supported the divestment measure—but not the American Jewish mainstream, which is generally liberal but tends to be emotionally attached to Israel. What do they see? They see the Jewish state being singled out and being forced to make itself more vulnerable by a Christian denomination. Now, again, that “force” is only symbolic—but you can see why even non-paranoid Jews might feel that their concerns are not being heard. Yes, Israel has the power relative to Palestine. Yes, much of this Jewish fear is the legacy of anti-Semitism for which Palestinians are not responsible. But Jews being told “you are a pariah” by a Christian denomination—well, that is not exactly going to build bridges of understanding.

Israel’s population, meanwhile, already has a grim sense of “Us versus Them.” They are wary of the UN, and often feel that the whole world is allied against them. Divestment campaigns exacerbate these fears and, rather than push Israelis to elect a more progressive government they are likely to push them to embrace a more conservative one.

Innocent Palestinians are being oppressed on a daily basis by an Occupation that brutalizes them. This is happening, though, because of failures of leadership on all sides. Mainstream Israeli voters have given up hope and elected a government oriented toward strength, not compromise. Even progressives here in Tel Aviv don’t have much hope either. They’re not even paying much attention—other issues are front and center, and there’s not much to report on this one. It may seem in America that Israel is defined by the Occupation, but in most of Israel, the Occupation is invisible. I’m not saying this is a good thing, I’m saying it’s a reality. 

What might change that? A sign, somewhere, that change is possible. A tangible plan, endorsed by the Palestinian leadership, the Israeli leadership and progressives in the world community. A way forward that won’t lead to more disappointment. A way to reenergize the Israeli Left, which has cared in the past, and could care again.

American activists should amp up the pressure on Israel, but not by shaming divestment measures which only reinforce Israeli and Jewish fears. Rather, they should find a way to restore hope—restore a belief that a two-state solution is even possible anymore. Although it seems impossible from here, they should find a way back to that handshake on the White House lawn, now almost twenty years ago, when, for a moment, it looked like there might be hope.