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Issue #1644      June 25, 2014

Presbyterian divestment

Meeting in Detroit, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) appears close to finally voting to divest their pension funds from companies providing the hardware for the ongoing dispossession and apartheid-style control and warehousing of the Palestinian people.

This has panicked the leadership of major Israel advocacy organisations and religious denominations, as well as some prominent Protestant leaders who fear that passage of this resolution – an earlier version of which failed by a hair two years ago – will unleash the flood of similar actions contemplated by other mainline Protestant denominations.

Predictably, the institutional Jewish community as well as voices within the church have hauled out time-tested arguments: that the intention of boycott, divestment and sanctions is to destroy Israel, or that Presbyterians are well-meaning but are being drawn into an anti-Semitic project and, of course, that the church should just keep talking about it, substituting action with a continuation of Christian-Jewish “dialogue” that tiptoes around discussion of Israel’s human rights violations.

Playing the same card

In an op-ed recently published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a rabbi from the American Jewish Committee warns that “while the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] minions are harming the Presbyterian-Jewish relationship, it is not yet beyond repair.

“Jews and Presbyterians,” he advises, “can still prevent a minority of Presbyterians from using the ignominious demonisation and delegitimisation of Israel from driving an irreparable wedge between the two religious communities.”

This is the same card that organisations like the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Federations of North America, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs have been playing since 2004, when the Presbyterians began to consider divesting from corporations that facilitate the theft of Palestine. The message to Christians is clear: your commitment to the unwritten rules of the Christian-Jewish relationship trumps following your consciences, and in this case your own denominational principles.

Leaders of these organisations, who claim to speak for all Jews, have also made it clear that any Jew supporting the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions has committed a betrayal of Jewish allegiance to the State of Israel.

But there are signs that the old rules are breaking down. Witness the revolt of Jewish students on campuses and a growing number of rabbis, Jewish scholars and Israeli journalists and academics who support boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Along with a strong contingent of Presbyterians working to get the resolution passed this year, these Jews are hoping that the voters at the General Assembly will do the right thing this year. But all agree it’s too close to call, and the pressure on the Presbyterian voting delegates has been unrelenting.

“Don’t rock the boat”

The influential and otherwise progressive Christian Century has weighed in, in a piece by a prominent Presbyterian pastor that urges Presbyterians to reject divestment. Once again, Christians are being told that all Jews identify with the State of Israel and that Zionism is synonymous with Judaism.

An open letter from a group of prominent Presbyterian pastors followed, beseeching Presbyterians to reject divestment as having as its intention the destruction of Israel. Like the Christian Century article, the letter seizes on the recent publication of the Presbyterian’s Israel Palestine Mission Network, “Zionism Unsettled,” as proof positive that support for BDS is motivated by anti-Semitism and the wish to “delegitimise” and to ultimately bring down the State of Israel. That “Zionism Unsettled” is not anti-Semitic, but a bold but nuanced discussion of Zionism, is not important to the authors – what is important is defeating BDS.

Some US rabbis have also entered the conversation in a letter published unofficially under the aegis of mainstream Jewish denominations and advocacy groups such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Adopting a gentler approach, the rabbis do not raise the spectre of anti-Semitism. Instead, they invoke the hard-won ties of friendship between Christians and Jews, singing the same song as the Presbyterian pastors: don’t rock the boat of Jewish-Christian harmony.

“Oversimplifying a complex conflict and placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility, increases conflict and division instead of promoting peace, reconciliation and mutual understanding,” the letter states. “The role of peacemaker is irreconcilable with positions that promote economic coercion through boycott, divestment and sanctions, and consequently discourage, rather than encourage, constructive engagement.”

Failure of logic

Arguing against BDS because it places blame on one side is a failure of both fact as well as logic. This is not a question of blame. It is simply based on the fact that one side has all the power and is responsible for the acts and the policies that are the obstacle to peace. What place does reconciliation have in a scenario in which annexation, land theft and illegal detention are actively ongoing?

As was the case for Jim Crow in America and apartheid in South Africa, the goal and rationale for divestment is simple – and that’s why the Jewish establishment in the US, working with the State of Israel, has chosen to make a stand about BDS with such determination and ferocity. To accept divestment is to accept that if Israel is to survive, Israel must change.

Divestment is not anti-Semitism, it is an act of love. As I sit with the Presbyterians in their deliberations in Detroit, I pray that they will realise that – at least 51 percent of them.

The Electronic Intifada

Next article – Teachers lead mass London march

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