Despite all of the hand-wringing and displays of shock & anger on the part of the American Jewish community, the results of the Presbyterian General Assembly to divest from three American companies (Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions) charged with aiding and abetting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, should hardly come as a surprise. Anti-divestment delegates only eked out a victory two years ago at the previous GA (to be fair, this pro-divestment victory was also slim), so those determined to push for this initiative did everything in their power to make sure that, after years of debating the issue — and being defeated repeatedly — their resolution would pass.
Who Really Lost the Presbyterians?
Some may dismiss opponents of divestment for being sore losers, or for subscribing to denial in the face of changes in American attitudes toward Israeli policies. Yet the results of the vote, financially speaking, are hardly significant, nor is it certain that such a decision will have reverberations in other mainline churches. But the Church’s leadership can hardly be happy with a Pyrrhic victory that is likely to rupture already strained Jewish-Presbyterian ties, perhaps this time to the breaking point.
As a supporter of PPI, I feel that it would be wrong to simply attack the decision to divest; this organization, after all, advocates a boycott of goods produced in settlements beyond the Green Line, and has posted a list of such goods. In comparison, divestment from three companies, in particular ones which are seen as contributing to the entrenching of the occupation, seems fairly tame (Americans For Peace Now simultaneously praised the decision and noted the problematic nature of singling out organizations because of their cooperation with the IDF–since the latter’s main function is not to maintain the occupation but rather to defend the country). At second glance, however, the truth is much more complicated. It is incredibly difficult to view this vote (however much its proponents wish otherwise), outside of the context of the antagonistic and often acrimonious relationship that has developed between the Church and Jewish groups since the divestment issue first appeared a decade ago.
Ugly statements by members of the Church about Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories have often taken on the form of theologically-based attacks on Jews, conjuring up images of deicide and replacement theology in the ostensible guise of human rights. Such attacks came to a culmination of sorts in the ‘study guide’ sponsored by the Church, “Zionism Unsettled”, which reads as almost a ‘hate-Israel-by-the-numbers” screed, painting Zionism as a supremacist and racist ideology responsible for all of the ills that have befallen the Middle East in the last century; to its credit, the Church did indicate that the guide did not reflect Church policy, and as of two days ago, has decided to stop selling it on their website. Nor can it be easily dismissed that Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-occupation organization that is at best ‘agnostic’ about Israel’s existence, openly supports BDS and has defended the likes of both Max Blumenthal and Ali Abunimah, played a major role in helping push divestment through. And while it is certainly important to note that the final resolution explicitly distanced itself from the BDS movement, it is troubling that other resolutions called for a ‘reconsideration’ of support for the two-state solution.
Despite my disdain for the BDS movement (which I have described in detail in this blog) and my suspicions about JVP, I was struck by a comment made by the latter’s president Rebecca Vilkomerson who noted that, while many Jewish communal organizations talk about the ills of the occupation, very few have taken concrete action in bringing about its end. Nearly every one of these organizations supports a two-state solution; yet far, far too often this support is mealy-mouthed lip service that does nothing to bring about such a result. Support for the creation of a Palestinian state is easy when it means never having to get one’s hands dirty: to discuss the corrupting nature of the occupation, the increase of religious fervor and rejectionism in Israeli society, the slow but tightening grip of the settlements, and the forced denial about a ‘United Jerusalem’.
It is, perhaps most tragically, the kind of support that never forces or even allows one to confront the Israeli government for its own misdeeds, to demand accountability from it. Many Jewish organizations who scorn the decision by the PCUSA to divest, forget that for years, other like-minded church groups deferred to their Jewish counterparts regarding the conflict, hoping that their support for Israel and its continued longevity would lead them to understand that the occupation and settlement enterprise, while not the sole evils of the conflict, would need to be confronted. But many of these people are tired of waiting; they are tired of niceties and seemingly profound statements about peace. They demand action. And if Jewish organizations who speak so often about justice and self-determination are too timid to confront these issues, then there are many others who will have less scruples in dealing with Israel, and are far less interested in seeking an end-game that will take the Jewish state’s sensibilities into account.
The strength of BDS on the one hand, and even moderate reprimands of Israeli policy derive, if not all of their oxygen, then certainly a fair amount of it, from this mixture of apathy and timidity on the part of American communal Jewry. As long as criticism of clearly self-destructive and self-defeating policy-making remains, initiatives such as this (along with a burgeoning resentment in Europe, as demonstrated over the last few days by major governments to avoid doing business with settlements) will become more and more abundant, eventually morphing, over time, into a movement out of the control of those who have Israel’s best interests at heart. No accusations of double standards or anti-Jewish hostility will stop the fact that the international community is intent on seeing a Palestinian state created, however adverse Israel and her supporters may feel. Internalizing this fact will make this process far less painful than it has to be.