Trending Topics:

Victory’s unintended consequences

on 37 Comments
The line actually was longer than a city block. This lobby is nearly two full city blocks long.

Divestment advocates form a line in the lobby outside the Presbyterian General Assembly last Friday. Photo by Barbara Harvey.

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

It isn’t time for an evaluation of the recent victory among Presbyterians in the BDS struggle. After all, the after-glow of victory should be enjoyed for at least week or two. But the kidnapping of the Jewish teenagers and the subsequent invasion of Palestine has cast a pall over everything bright and sunny.

Time passes all too quickly in the disenchanted (unholy) land that stretches between Tel Aviv and the Jordan River. Who even remembers John Kerry’s solve-the-issue-once-and-for-all peace plan that dissolved only months ago?

The commentators are a having field day on the Presbyterian divestment vote. Most are rehashing the same scenario but it seems that a major point is absent from the discussion -the unintended consequences of the BDS victory a few days ago may move in a very different direction than the winners hoped for.

Victory is a victory and, though a squeaker, the Presbyterians did vote for divestment from three companies that profit from the occupation of Palestinians. But to say that the Presbyterians have signed on to divestment is disingenuous.

Two years ago, the Presbyterians narrowly defeated a similar measure. We can be sure that the issue will be revisited at the next assembly in 2016. Like many Christian denominations, the Presbyterians are split down the middle on the issue.

But the divestment victory has come at a cost. The cost is simply put. If you look at the hem’s and haw’s of the passed resolution and the comments by Presbyterian officials during and after the vote, the victory is parsed as a supportive measure for a just Israel as, in the Presbyterian’s view, Israel was and could be again. Support for Palestinians, while stated, is secondary. The love expressed toward our “brother and sister” Israelis and Palestinians is further subordinated to the relationships that the Presbyterians have cultivated with American Jews.

If all politics is local, the local Rabbi is much more important – and closer – to most Presbyterians than the local Imam or Palestinian – if either is even in the neighborhood. Another way of putting it: Israel is all over the Presbyterian prayer cycle; Mohammed and Islam aren’t.

The unintended consequences of the Presbyterian vote are important. They include drawing closer than ever to Israel as a Jewish state precisely when the BDS movement is questioning the very possibility of such an Israel embracing a just peace with the Palestinian people. By divesting from three corporations, the Presbyterians affirmed once again the two-state solution and, at the same time, excused from culpability other corporations who benefit directly or indirectly from profiting in the occupation. In actuality, this means any corporation doing business with Israel since in one way or another almost every Israeli corporation participates in and benefits financially from the occupation.

At the same time, the Presbyterians drew the line on BDS. They were explicit: In no way was their action to be interpreted to show support for the BDS movement. At least implicitly, they support the view that one of BDS’s goals is to undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

Again, a victory is a victory. But if I were in the Israeli government I would think twice about pouting. Unlike the Presbyterians, Israel has an army which it was using as the votes were tallied. The re-invasion of Palestine is telling as are the limits of the Presbyterians on what really counts in the ongoing – and intensifying – struggle in Israel-Palestine.

When the chips are down, the Presbyterians are on Israel’s side. As they have been.

At this point, what more could Israel ask for?

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

Other posts by .

Posted In:

37 Responses

  1. Donald on June 23, 2014, 12:23 pm

    This is all true enough–the Presbyterians leaned over backwards to make the liberal Zionists happy and push the 2ss and yet the major Jewish organizations still attacked them. To the extent that ordinary people pay attention, that’s what’s so revealing about it. It shows that these groups which claim to support a 2SS and a Palestinian state wouldn’t lift a finger to bring it about. The slightest bit of pressure, not on Israel, but on American companies that help with the occupation, is more than they can bear. Their only priority is to ensure that America support Israel no matter what–their claim to support a 2SS is just window dressing.

    • Shmuel on June 23, 2014, 12:32 pm

      It shows that these groups which claim to support a 2SS and a Palestinian state wouldn’t lift a finger to bring it about.

      And, on the contrary, would expend significant amounts of energy to block any such initiative.

  2. seafoid on June 23, 2014, 12:42 pm

    The Presbyterians got the bot lobbying and professions of good faith. Abbas did too. He followed their instructions and proved they weren’t interested in peace. Israel can’t change and it’ll show its true colours to the Presbyterians too. Bad faith is what kills worthless Zionist assurances. By their actions shall you know the bastards.

  3. W.Jones on June 23, 2014, 1:08 pm

    I think that you are not so wrong in this article, as you also recognized that a victory is a victory. You did a good job pointing out why it’s not a total or final one.

    One thing I disagree with is:
    By divesting from three corporations, the Presbyterians… excused from culpability other corporations who benefit directly or indirectly from profiting in the occupation.
    It is silent about them, but it could also be the beginning of more divestments, rather than an excusing from culpability.

    • Walid on June 23, 2014, 2:38 pm

      I don’t agree, W.Jones, it is about excusing. Divestment from companies dealing with Israel for business on the settlements is a half-hearted effort although it’s still better than nothing and I’ll continue rooting for it, but it wouldn’t be enough to break the occupation or the siege. Israel itself has to be boycotted and not only the settlements.

      • lysias on June 23, 2014, 2:53 pm

        As Bismarck said, Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen (“Politics is the art of the possible”). Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.

      • W.Jones on June 23, 2014, 4:40 pm


        I suppose that insofar as they only picked three major abusers it means that they also did not pick other ones for this year. But I doubt that it means that they are saying that they won’t divest from anyone in the future, Walid. The ball looks to be rolling on this issue and I could easily see more divestment motions ahead, although it would be better if they listed however many companies there were working in the OPT for divestment. Instead, they picked three of the most abusive.

      • Walid on June 24, 2014, 2:14 am

        “The ball looks to be rolling on this issue and I could easily see more divestment motions ahead, ”

        W.Jones, yes , it is rolling but it’s a very lightweight ball, somewhat like a ping-pong ball and even if it grows to be like a tennis ball, it would still be lightweight against Israel and we have to stop kidding ourselves with these little inconsequential victories. $24 million spread out over the likes of Motorola Solutions, Caterpillar and HP will have very little effect on these American companies and even less on the settlement enterprise.

        Marc Ellis has come down from his prophetic clouds and has set his feet solidly on the ground; this little victory is really nothing to get all excited about as the Presbyterians have made it clear that they are not and have no intention of getting on the BDS bus and they are practically preaching against the BDS movement itself in professing their loyalty to Israel in their actual wording of their determining resolution.

        Of the Presbyterians’ $8.4 billion fund, a relatively low $24 million was divested from American companies, which is almost a joke. Of the $8.4 billion, $1.8 billion is invested internationally but I couldn’t get to how much of it is invested in Israeli companies, but I’d venture a guess from all the love expressed for Israel by the Presbyterians that the amount must be quite important.

        This divestment reminds me of another farce from 2009 when the Norwegian national fund divested from Elbit Systems because they make cameras for the wall or some other equipment and the amount of the farcical divestment was for $6 million; a farce because that year’s Elbit Systems showed it had back orders of $10 billion, so a $6 million divestment didn’t make a ripple. What was not bragged or talked about that year was that the Norwegian fund maintained about $300 million invested in various Israeli companies. That same year, the Norwegians also divested in another farce of $1 million from Leviev’s Africa-Israel of the Bi’ilin infamy. What we are seeing of the Presbyterians divestment is along the same lines and not much more than cosmetics.

        49.4% of the Presbyterians that voted were against the divestment. Marc Ellis is right to say that this divestment is nothing to get excited about. Until BDS stops fiddling around with “occupation” issues like SodaStream and starts taking direct aim at Israel itself, nothing serious is going to happen.

        The resolution:

        “Instruct the Presbyterian Foundation and the Board of Pensions of the PC(USA), to divest from Caterpillar, Inc, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions, in accord with our church’s decades-long socially responsible investment (SRI) history, and not to reinvest in these companies until the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee of the PC(USA) is fully satisfied that product sales and services by these companies are no longer in conflict with our church investment policy. This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.”

      • Walid on June 24, 2014, 2:38 am

        ” a farce because that year’s Elbit Systems ” above should have been “Elbit’s previous year’s annual statements,”


    • Hostage on June 23, 2014, 3:39 pm

      By divesting from three corporations, the Presbyterians… excused from culpability other corporations who benefit directly or indirectly from profiting in the occupation.

      I think you need to be specific. What companies are you talking about? And do the Presbyterians really own stock in them?

      • W.Jones on June 23, 2014, 4:35 pm


        There might be some big international companies that work in the Occupied Territories that the PCUSA has invested in. But by not divesting from them at this particular assembly, has the GA basically announced that it doesnt matter? if so, why?

        If I run a child protection agency and this year I stop abuse by three families, does that mean I have given a blanket approval to the others for the indefinite future?

      • Speedy on June 23, 2014, 5:52 pm

        Hi W. Jones.
        Nice straw man you constructed!

        Here is PCUSA’s description of their human rights divestment policy:

        “As human rights issues arise, as in the case of South Africa and apartheid, or the Sudan crisis, the General Assembly may place a company on the divestment and/or proscription list…MRTI is currently working on a phased, selective divestment process related to companies operating in Sudan, and to determine that investments in companies doing business in Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank are only in companies engaged in peaceful pursuits.”

        In other words, on the whole planet – a planet where there are presently 50,000,000 refugees and billions of people living under authoritarian regimes – the only places PCUSA would consider for “human rights” divestment are Sudan and Israel. Can you imagine?

        Sounds like the church is doing a very lazy job.

      • Hostage on June 24, 2014, 10:02 am

        In other words, on the whole planet – a planet where there are presently 50,000,000 refugees and billions of people living under authoritarian regimes – the only places PCUSA would consider for “human rights” divestment are Sudan and Israel. Can you imagine?

        Yes. The major sources of refugees are Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, DRC, Myanmar, Iraq, Colombia, Vietnam, and Eritrea. I suspect the PCUSA has little, if any, money invested in companies doing business in those particular countries. In any event, the overwhelming majority of corporations don’t contribute to the problem of refugees or help prop up or facilitate the policies of authoritarian regimes. That’s why I asked for something specific.

      • Woody Tanaka on June 24, 2014, 10:14 am

        “the only places PCUSA would consider for ‘human rights’ divestment are Sudan and Israel. Can you imagine?”

        Well, just goes to show how disgusting Isreal is on their human rights abuses. Maybe if they and their supporters stopped trying to lie, slander and make excuses and deny the humanity of their victims, and used that energy to stop being barbarians, then maybe the world would be a better place.

      • talknic on June 24, 2014, 10:43 am

        @ Speedy “Hi W. Jones.
        Nice straw man you constructed!”

        Let’s see shall we….

        “… the only places PCUSA would consider for “human rights” divestment are Sudan and Israel. Can you imagine?”

        I can imagine that in order to divest from places with human rights issues, one must first have investment from those places.

        “Sounds like the church is doing a very lazy job”

        Sounds more like you haven’t thought much about where they might actually have investments Pajero

  4. richb on June 23, 2014, 1:13 pm

    Not only was the nothing is good enough aspect shocking to us but so was the ultimatum aspect. Our disclaimers were not new but just re-iteration of longstanding Presbyterian policy. Presbyterians were not part of the global BDS movement, until now! Before the flashy motion passed a quiet one proceeded it that called for a reconsideration of the so-called 2 state solution. A report on this will be presented at our next GA when we have learned from the bad faith reaction to our limited, moderate divestment. If we are shunned by the Jewish establishment we will have built two years of relationships with young Jewish activists instead. I am confident of this prediction because my church parallels my own personal journey.

    • Betsy on June 23, 2014, 1:29 pm

      @richb: excellent description. The sense of shock, and sense that there’s been bad faith & shunning behavior — are important *emotional* realities that commissioners will be processing as they return home & try to explain the issues & the feelings to local churches & presbyteries all across the country…

      • richb on June 23, 2014, 1:44 pm

        One thing we owe the ordinary non-activist folk is a warning not to say they are Presbyterian when traveling to Israel.

      • richb on June 23, 2014, 2:05 pm

        Another emotional reality will be to relate to the collective punishment of the Palestinians. I predict that churches and pastors who disagree with us on divestment will be punished, too.

        N.B. While I am talking about relating I am talking about the same kind of suffering but the degree of suffering we go through is much less. Both sides of the debate have a desire to not be complicit in this suffering of others. What we need to communicate to our sisters and brothers is a sense of proportionality. When they contrast us with others who have zero sense of proportionality most of the battle will have been one. Presbyterian ethics hold that the civil law found in the OT is fulfilled not in the details but by general and proportional equity.

      • seafoid on June 23, 2014, 4:39 pm

        “The sense of shock, and sense that there’s been bad faith & shunning behavior”

        Can you tick any more from this list ?

        Symptoms of psychopathy
        Persistent lying or stealing
        Recurring difficulties with the law
        Tendency to violate the rights and boundaries of others
        Aggressive, often violent behavior; prone to getting involved in fights
        Persistent agitated or depressed feeling (dysphoria)
        Inability to tolerate boredom
        Disregard for the safety of self or others
        Lack of remorse, related to hurting others
        Superficial charm
        A sense of extreme entitlement
        Inability to make or keep friends
        Recklessness, impulsivity
        Difficulties with authority figures

  5. Pat Nguyen on June 23, 2014, 1:15 pm

    I agree with this article. As one who supports Israel, her policies, and her elected officials, I believe that the church did what they thought would be helpful. Their message behind their rational of investment decisions is concise. As is their commitment to the 2SS. They were wise enough to proactively distance from the BDS.

    What I don’t understand, however, is the interpretation expressed by many. For example, the elements that are viewed as positive are the result of the church doing the right thing. If the resolution is not strong enough for their liking, then they are bending over backwards. Can’t have it both ways folks!

  6. Jethro on June 23, 2014, 1:21 pm

    Sorry to disagree with you, Marc, but in my opinion, none of the unintended consequences you discussed above overwhelm the most important consequence that came out of this; the Presbyterian leadership got extended exposure to Zionists rabidly in pursuit of an immoral goal. And that’s all it takes.

    If the rank and file aren’t there with the leadership yet, they will be. As for Americans in general, the scales are very slowly lifting as well.

    • DaBakr on June 23, 2014, 6:07 pm

      proving that what? the Palestinian conflict is the most pressing conflict in the world and exposing ‘Zionist’ and there supposed ‘immoral’ behavior is the top priority of Presbys? And btw-I really have no problem with pcusa voting to divest from the 3 companies , especially the way they did it. the vote was close and surely bds supporters see that as only a result of ‘Jewish’ pressure. I’m not so sure it wasn’t an equal amount of pressure from small groups within the church. And while somebody said here ‘a win is a win’ i am not convinced that this is the vote that marks anything more then a hard won and close vote.
      And I would be curious (no-i’m not being tongue-in-cheek_ as to why people here think CAT HP and MTRLA chose not to even comment afaik and did not engage the pcusa. CAT e.g. has got to have only a fraction of its interests intwined with Israel. Is there a logical, business (capitalist) explanation for their persistence or do people here think its just the same ‘zionist domination’ model?

      I heard the CNN interview and accept the sincerity of the moderator. I don’t agree with the logic but recognize his right to reasonable protest

      • Hostage on June 25, 2014, 10:15 am

        @DaBakr Months ago, the ICTY caused an uproar in the legal community when it adopted the controversial “specific direction” standard. The other international criminal tribunals rejected the precedent and a different panel of ICTY judges subsequently ruled that the Appeals Chamber in Perisic was wrong in holding that specific direction was an essential element of the actus reus of aiding and abetting liability.

        Our own US government has always held that it is a federal crime or a violation of customary international law to “knowingly provide material support or resources” to a foreign terrorist organization or any government entity that commits crimes against peace; war crimes; crimes against humanity; or engages in a common plan or conspiracy to accomplish the forgoing.

        Trust me, CAT is knowingly providing material support for a government that is committing well-publicized war crimes and crimes against humanity with its equipment.

  7. Speedy on June 23, 2014, 2:00 pm

    Motorola Solutions, Caterpillar and HP also sell to four countries that are currently occupying other countries or territories: Morocco, Turkey, China and Russia.

    • W.Jones on June 23, 2014, 4:30 pm

      Morocco is occupying an area south of itself, Turkey is occupying part of Cyprus, China is controlling Cyprus, and Russia is occupying itself with playing Mongolia in chess.

      No, I think that you are talking about Crimea. And yet considering what east Ukraine is going through, perhaps it is not a surprise that Crimeans voted to join Russia?

    • ritzl on June 23, 2014, 4:59 pm

      So PC(USA) got themselves a five-fer!

      Yay! Good for them.

  8. joecatron on June 23, 2014, 2:21 pm

    I was just thinking how integral the Zionist reaction is to the whole affair. If they were smart, they would have shrugged it off. “Well, they’re a religious organization,” they might have said. “They don’t invest in military contractors, including ours, on principle. So what? Good for them, we guess. Who cares?”

    Fortunately, Zionists are usually not smart at all, but generally quite stupid.

    • Speedy on June 23, 2014, 2:26 pm

      Nothing wrong with a little hubris! Cheers!

    • richb on June 23, 2014, 3:29 pm

      Joe, their stupidity also shows up in the other major decision of the GA, letting pastors marry same sex couples. The chair of the committee that dealt with those issues was on the losing side. 10-NB was passed that we should be reconciled and his behavior helped to give sympathy for the losers by the winners. No applause happened when the votes came in and people prayed for healing on the other side. Note that this issue passed by a wide margin. The people that helped to pass this were targeted by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. If GSM activists really believed Israel was the most gay friendly country in the ME then divestment would have gone down in flames. So, another fail was the pinkwashing fail.

      One of the viral hashtags for GA was #GAmargins. This was to focus Presbyterians on all the marginalized including GSMs, young people, and Palestinians. Israel was wrong that we were picking on them but rather they wanted to be excluded in not having their privilege scrutinized. Another characteristic of this GA was the consideration of the opinions of young people. The PCUSA like all white Protestant denominations has lost many young people. So, people kept track of the votes of Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs) and the commissioners. There was less than half a dozen times where the votes diverged. Over 60% of the YAADs voted for divestment. The ME debate was where the comity broke down somewhat. At least three times the YAADs made privileged motions complaining how their voice was silenced either by calling the question or by not being called on equally. We made progress in listening to our young people but more work needs to be done if we are not to (literally) die off. We gained some good will with the last GA and I pray we don’t waste it.

  9. W.Jones on June 23, 2014, 4:29 pm

    Over 60% of the YAADs voted for divestment. The ME debate was where the comity broke down somewhat. At least three times the YAADs made privileged motions complaining how their voice was silenced either by calling the question or by not being called on equally.
    Are you implying something like:

    GA:We need to listen to the young people.
    Young People: Let’s divest from Apartheid.
    GA: Moving along….

    • richb on June 23, 2014, 8:02 pm

      Pretty much nailed it. At the 220th General Assembly (2012), of the 688 commissioners, there were no ruling elders or teaching elders under the age of 25. While 93 (11 percent) commissioners were age 26–45, nearly 90 percent of commissioners were over the age of 45.

      03-03 would have given young people real power. How did GA respond? Pat the youngsters on the head. It was voted down by consensus. Consensus is code for didn’t even need a recorded vote.

      Assembly Action
      On this Item, the General Assembly, acted as follows:
      Disapprove with Comment
      [action via Agenda: Wednesday Consent Agenda]
      While the committee recognizes the value of the YAAD program, the input these advisors give us, the perspective they bring to our discussions, and the experiences it gives our emerging church leaders, we recommend Item 03-03 not be approved for the following reasons: 1) There is flexibility within the current Book of Order for this intent to happen. 2) The overture actually could work counter to the intent of the overture in that there would be no prior vote for advice; their voice would be blended with all other votes with no distinctions as to how the younger commissioners were thinking. 3) We also wish to honor and respect the advice of COGA and the ACC that offer serious considerations on how to include young adults in the whole life of the church. 4) The 221st General Assembly (2014) encourages the COGA to continue the discussion of how to include young adults in all levels of the life and ministry of the PC(USA) including the encouragement of sessions and presbyteries to affirm the call of young adults to the office of ruling elder, while encouraging persons who have served as YAADs as well as other advisory delegates to the 221st General Assembly (2014) to be included in this discussion and discernment.

      • W.Jones on June 23, 2014, 11:18 pm


        What was 03-03? What did it say? What is the purpose of commissioners? I am more familiar with my church’s system, which sends a delegate from every parish to its yearly assembly, and doesn’t involve commissioners.

        Religious organizations in the US have a major problem with retaining youth. People spend time on TV or the web instead of church and they live well enough so they dont need to kneel before the shrines, and their education is good enough so that they doubt miracles. Personally I wish there was more church attendance. People should think and talk more about morality, love, forgiveness and mercy, even if they don’t follow them as much as we would want.

        The Church needs to think more about youth in order to retain them.

        Personally, I like the PCUSA in that it is a liberal church. That was what created it. They are typically OK with evolution. I left it as a young person because I learned that Calvinist theology is built around punishment. I read a book called “Spare the Child”, which focused a lot on explaining how Calvinist thinking plays a big role in corporal punishment thinking about children. Being a young person myself, this disillusioned me with Presbyterianism.

        So I would have to say Yes, that youth is something PCUSA should be concerned with.

  10. piotr on June 23, 2014, 10:54 pm

    “But if I were in the Israeli government I would think twice about pouting.”

    But your are not! GoI is pouting, harrumphing, stripping PCUSA of the rank of “constructive participant in the peace process”.

  11. seafoid on June 24, 2014, 12:46 am

    “This vote will have wider repercussions,” said Jacobs, who will be in Detroit for the event. “This is a debate for the very fundamental legitimacy of the state of Israel.”

    He was right . I think BDS has the potential to bring the refugees back into the picture.

  12. MHughes976 on June 24, 2014, 5:01 am

    I’d say that the Ps have in effect rejected the proposition that ‘it is legitimate to profit from the situation in the OT (commonly called)’. In saying this, they commit themselves (whether or not they yet admit it) to rejecting everything that implies that this form of profit is all right, including all forms of Zionism except those that are so liberal that they do not endorse ‘occupation profit’. As Donald and Shmuel remark, those forms of Zionism have not been keen to show themselves. JVP may well be an honourable exception, though I don’t think I know their full position clearly. In truth can there be any form of Zionism which is (considering the exclusiveness of its claims) both liberal and consistent?
    I don’t think that Marc should be so dissatisfied with the Ps’ going that far: his own argument is very close to one that we commonly encounter and reject, that to condemn one thing – say the Nakba Day deaths – is to condone another – say bombings in Syria (or even Nakba Day repression at non-lethal levels). Jacobs is right that this thing doesn’t end here.

  13. Scottmontreal on June 24, 2014, 12:52 pm

    I appreciate Marc Ellis’s analysis, but the incredible positive of the Presbyterian vote is the front page news it made through out the U.S.. Marc’s sophisticated analysis is lost in the widespread message by the mainstream media “Presbyterians boycotting Israel!” and the Israel lobby’s public panic. That message carries far more power than the actual details – which will quickly be an internal matter.

Leave a Reply