‘We know best how to liberate you’ — the misguided attack on Presbyterian divestment

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Logo for Presbyterian GA this month in Detroit
Logo for Presbyterian GA this month in Detroit

The Presbyterian Church (USA) will soon embark upon a set of votes that will affect the denomination’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The Church’s 221st biennial General Assembly, in Detroit next week, will examine, among other measures, an overture calling for the Church to divest its pension funds from three American companies that profit from the militarized Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.  The same overture was effectively defeated by a razor-thin margin in 2012, at the 220th General Assembly, in Pittsburgh.

The movement to divest from these companies was first brought to the General Assembly in a grassroots effort by members of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, Florida, who had heard the call from Palestinian Christians to use divestment as a non-violent tool of resistance against the Israeli occupation. The overture to divest is in line with the denomination’s longstanding investment policy: the Church does not invest in companies involved in militarization, human rights abuses, or threats to public health. Accordingly, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has divested from companies profiting from South African apartheid in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the lack of mine safety in Kentucky in the 1970s, forced labor in Burma in the 1990s, and human rights violations in Sudan in 2001.  The Church does not invest in any companies that sell weapons, regardless of where, how, and by whom they might be used.

The three companies on the divestment docket this year—Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard—are in clear violation of this policy.  According to extensive research conducted by the Church’s Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) committee, Caterpillar provides weaponized bulldozers to the Israeli military, which are used to demolish farmland in Gaza and Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem; Motorola Solutions manufactures fuses for Israeli bombs, the communications system for Israel’s military, and surveillance equipment for illegal Israeli settlements; and Hewlett Packard furnishes the computer hardware for the Israeli Navy and the biometric scanners for checkpoints, through which all Palestinians (but no Israelis) in the occupied West Bank must pass.  Following Church policy, MRTI engaged in an eight-year dialogue with these companies, urging them to stop producing weaponry.  After the companies refused to change, MRTI recommended that the Church divest its holdings in them.

The overture to divest is thus in line with Church policy and stands as a clear reaffirmation of the denomination’s commitment to the Christian ideals of peace, justice, and human rights.  In short, there is no reason the Presbyterian Church (USA) should vote against divestment.

Yet, a small group of institutions and individuals are dead set on singling out these three companies as an exception to the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s policy.  Not a single opponent of divestment has argued against the measure in terms of its possible incongruity with the letter of Church policy or the tenets of Christianity.  They know all too well that such an argument would be, at best, logically flawed.

Instead, opponents of divestment have attempted to reframe the debate.  Unable or unwilling to deny that Hewlett Packard, Motorola, and Caterpillar are, in fact, involved in militarized pursuits, the opponents of divestment have resorted to one of three lines of attack.

First, those opponents of divestment who are reasonably well informed of the situation acknowledge that Palestinian suffering is disproportionate to that of Israel; they recognize the injustice of the Israeli expulsion of Palestinians from the new state of Israel in 1948, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory since 1967, and the air, land, and sea blockade of Gaza since 2007; and they are often working to end at least the occupation and blockade.  But the non-violent tactic of divestment, they insist, is not the right way to solve these problems.

Take, for instance, a recent discussion paper on “Perspectives on Presbyterian Church (USA) Support for a Just and Peaceful Compromise of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” written by the Ecumenical and Interreligious Work Group (EIWG) of the Presbytery of Chicago.  “[The] Palestinian population has been displaced from their homes and cities since 1947,” the paper correctly states, “borne the brunt of a demeaning occupation since 1967, and endured an unrelenting refugee status for nearly seven decades.”  But divestment, they suggest, is a tool that could be “used to undermine the legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist,” despite the fact that proposed Presbyterian divestment targets only companies that are profiting from the militarized aspects of the occupation and blockade.  EIWG makes a number of recommendations for Presbyterians, including that we “support Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers and their initiatives,” especially those involved with “economic and social development of Palestinians, and reconciliation on behalf of both peoples.”  But the group fails to mention that nearly all Palestinian civil society organizations, including every single Palestinian Christian denomination, has specifically called on the international community—particularly Christians—to use boycotts and divestment as non-violent tools to bring about a just peace in Israel/Palestine.  It is as if the members of EIWG and other like-minded opponents of divestment are paternalistically saying to the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and in exile, “no, you’re wrong. We know best how to liberate you.”

Second, divestment opponents who are not as informed (or forthcoming) as groups like EIWG deny altogether the imbalanced nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that “both sides” are to blame, and therefore, any measure—such as divestment—that affects Israel more than Palestine is unfair and unhelpful.  This approach reveals, at best, a deep ignorance of the conflict, and at worst, a willful distortion of the different realities faced by Israelis and Palestinians.

The Session of the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, for example, released a statement this week expressing their “disapprov[al] of the actions of Israelis in building settlements and destroying homes in areas occupied for centuries by Palestinians.” But, the statement continued, “we also disapprove the actions of Palestinians in firing rockets into Israeli neighborhoods and in violent attacks on Israeli citizens.”  The undeniably uneven relationship between Israel and Palestine, between occupier and occupied, displacer and displaced, is erased, as both sides are portrayed as sharing equal blame and equal pain, despite the overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. “We do not think that acts of divestiture and boycott are the leverage points that will lead to a more just outcome,” the Church’s Session wrote.  Instead, “we encourage and promote more positive means of addressing the conflict, including interfaith dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims.” And “[we] will strive diligently to seek, encourage, and support positive investment, rather than divestment, in programs serving to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis and among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.”  In other words, the Session of the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta believes that the Presbyterian Church (USA) should invest in bridge-building between Israelis and Palestinians while still also investing in the weapons of occupation and war.

Third, when all else fails, opponents change the subject and shoot the purported messenger.  Some of the most ardent opponents of divestment are focusing on a Presbyterian study guide recently published by the Israel-Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) called Zionism Unsettled.  IPMN was created by the 2004 General Assembly as an official mission network of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with a mandate to advocate for Palestinian rights and to “create currents of wider and deeper Presbyterian involvement with Palestinian partners, aimed at demonstrating solidarity and changing the conditions that erode the humanity of Palestinians living in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.”

With considerable nuance, IPMN’s study guide critically examines the relationships among the political ideology at the heart of Israel’s creation, the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians, the acquiescence of American Christians, and the legacies of these phenomena, as they exist today.  Such a critique is not new.  Israeli historians, Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris, among many others, have analyzed voluminous historical data to conclude not only that Zionism led to the forced displacement of most of Palestine’s indigenous population, but also that the displacement was an intentional strategy on the part of the Zionist leadership.  The connection of the contemporary occupation and expropriation of Palestinian territory to a Zionist yearning for a Jewish homeland is an undeniable reality. IPMN has shined a light into this dark corner of history and brought these long-ignored facts into the Church’s conversation on Israel/Palestine.  And for this, they have been the target of a constant stream of attacks from Presbyterians and non-Presbyterians alike.  As is often the case when apologists for Israel can find no factual basis for their attacks, many critics of Zionism Unsettled have outrageously suggested that the study guide is “biased” or even “anti-Semitic.”

What does this have to do with divestment?  Not much.  But some members of the anti-divestment crowd are hoping that if they can associate IPMN with anti-Semitism – or the allegation of anti-Semitism – and if they can associate the divestment overture with IPMN (which the group endorsed but did not originate), they might be able to associate divestment with anti-Semitism and thereby defeat it.  Presbyterian minister, Christopher Leighton, for example, launched a lengthy attack on Zionism Unsettled in which he accused IPMN of “bigotry” and falsely argued that Zionism Unsettled “presses the PCUSA to embrace a strain of BDS that delegitimizes the existence of a Jewish state.”  He concludes, “instead of pursuing divestment and boycotts, and certainly instead of denying legitimacy to Jewish self-definition and the state of Israel, the better option would be to focus on communication coupled with creative investment.”  Leighton refuses to examine divestment on its own merits and instead attempts to dismiss the overture by a fallacious and logically convoluted guilt-by-association argument.  Like the Session of the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta (which used Leighton’s Institute for Christian and Judaic Study’s curriculum on Israel/Palestine), Leighton essentially concludes that the Presbyterian Church (USA) should encourage peaceful dialogue and positive investment while also maintaining the Church’s investments (literally and figuratively) in oppression and warfare.

Presenting a false dichotomy between divestment and investment is the strategy that defeated divestment at the 220th General Assembly in 2012.  The opponents of divestment utilized byzantine parliamentary procedures to force, and ultimately confuse, the General Assembly commissioners into choosing either “positive” investment in the Palestinian economy or divestment from Hewlett Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar, without allowing them to vote for both. The GA voted 333-331 in favor of “positive” investment in Palestine, with many commissioners not knowing that because of a parliamentary caveat inserted into the overture at the last minute, their vote canceled an opportunity to vote for divestment as well. (Moreover, four commissioners and eight advisory delegates refused to abstain from the vote despite the fact that they had gone on all-expense-paid trips to Israel provided by the anti-divestment Israel Action Network.)

That 71% of the GA voted the very next morning to boycott all products from Israeli settlements suggests the actual Presbyterian sentiment on divestment belied the either/or vote on investment/divestment.  It is important, therefore, for Presbyterians, journalists, and other observers to ensure that the opponents of divestment do not make parliamentary chicanery a fourth strategy to defeat divestment at the June 14-21 General Assembly.

Despite the concerted efforts of well-organized, and in some cases, well-funded, institutions, not a single credible argument against divestment has emerged.  This should give advocates of peace and justice in Israel/Palestine hope.  But it is vitally important to keep the focus on what exactly divestment would do and why the Presbyterian Church (USA) should do it.  There will inevitably be resistance to occupation and dispossession.  The question is, will the Presbyterian Church (USA) support a call from Palestine for non-violent resistance, or will they ignore it, risking the outbreak of inexorable violence?

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Israel always, in a spirit of good faith, asks for more time, to show its good faith. And verily there has been none since 2012. So a #fail is on the cards.

These churches should display those wonderful anti apartheid posters that were put up in Boston subways recently. That should send a strong message to all.

What the Presbyterians are attempting to do, is something, but not nearly enough in comparison to the crimes Israel is doing. Churches are far too silent about US wars as well. Religion is not much of a moral force in our nation, both Christianity and Judaism. If they can’t be forceful and demonstrate resistance to the crimes of war and apartheid, then what are they doing?