On June 30, the biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) will consider the church's divestment from three American companies because of their sales to Israel. This misguided, ineffectual proposal would have only one meaningful ramification -- It would seriously deepen a growing chasm between the church and some of its strongest allies on nearly every principle of social justice: the Jewish people.
Although I am a devout Jew, I've had an unusual bond to the Presbyterian Church. My paternal cousins, though intermarriage, are active Presbyterians, and I've been proud to celebrate a lifetime of life cycle events at their church. As a child, when my small synagogue in Lexington, Kentucky could not field a basketball team, I played point guard for First Presbyterian -- while not liturgically significant, I was required to attend church precisely once a year, a honorary Presbyterian for that day. And with Presbyterian Church (USA)'s headquarters in nearby Louisville, I've had the opportunity to meet and work with several of its national leaders in my former roles as Kentucky's State Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer.
While I'm no expert on the denomination, I've certainly learned about the wide spectrum of values shared by our two faiths. First and foremost is a passion for social justice -- whether our inspiration comes from the Hebrew Prophets or the Gospels of Jesus, some of our most sacred, shared missions are to serve the poor, promote the rights of the disenfranchised and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It's no wonder that over the past several decades, Jews and Presbyterians have walked arm in arm in campaigns to establish equal rights for women, African-Americans, and gays and lesbians; to battle callous government policies that exacerbate income inequality and to promote peace throughout the world.
A serious cleavage in the interfaith relationship emerged, however, upon passage of a policy by the 2004 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for a "phased, selective" divestment of Israel. After strong protest by Jewish groups -- as well as by many Presbyterian parishioners -- the 2006 General Assembly reversed course, calling for "corporate engagement" to promote peaceful solutions in the Middle East.
This February, however, citing the failure of corporate engagement to produce results, the church's General Assembly Mission Council recommended that the church divest its stock from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard "until they have ceased profiting from non-peaceful activities in Israel-Palestine." The church will consider this resolution at its 220th General Assembly meeting that begins June 30 in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, the church's proposed actions have little grounding in reality. Caterpillar, for example, does not actually sell equipment to Israel; it sells tractors and bulldozers to the U.S. government as part of a broad-based international program that transfers them to about 150 countries around the globe, including Israel. To address the church's objectives, Caterpillar would have to boycott its own government, a move that would level a devastating, if not existential blow to the company, its shareholders and its thousands of U.S. employees.
Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard is charged with selling "hardware to the Israeli Navy that is used for its operational communications, logistics and planning including the ongoing naval blockade of the Gaza Strip." Yet, as an official report of the notoriously anti-Israel-leaning United Nations declared in 2011, the blockade was manifestly legal, and it was instituted for the very purposes of upholding the peace. Wrote the Palmer Commission: "Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza...The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law."
Far worse than the misguided and misinformed resolution's practical implications is its potential to seriously disrupt the long term Jewish-Presbyterian alliance on behalf of social justice. As I detail in my new book, The Liberal Case for Israel, the language of "boycott" and "divestment" is particularly painful for Jews who have suffered from more than six decades of boycotts against Israel, led most often by those who seek to de-legitimize or even destroy the Jewish State. While many Jews, including myself, disagree with some of the Israeli government's policies regarding the West Bank, we are infuriated by boycott actions that blame the Jewish State entirely for the failure to reach peace, and those that single out the only liberal democracy in an exceedingly hostile and autocratic region. Where's the fury about the more than 150 rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians that have been fired by Gaza-based, Hamas-supported terrorists in just the past week alone? Where's the outrage against the Syrian government's policy of mass murder? Where's the protest against government persecution of gays and subjugation of women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East nations?
Presbyterian church leaders, reacting to internal criticism of the recommendations, have tried to assure their parishioners that the action is not a statement against Jews or even Israelis, but instead about the misbehavior of the named companies. Rev. John Hougen, a member of the church's Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee declared "I'm voting to divest because it's the right idea -- absolutely not -- because of the people involved."
However, a recent church forum in Louisville about the divestment proposal -- one of a series that were held across the country prior to the General Assembly -- belied the notion that Zionists shouldn't take offense. Neither Jewish nor pro-Israel leaders were permitted to deliver a presentation. Meanwhile, one speaker compared Israeli policy to South African apartheid, a malicious libel of a nation that provides full and equal rights to its 1.6 million Arab citizens; a nation that rescued tens of thousands of black men, women and children out of abject poverty, famine, and slavery in Ethiopia, and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars toward their full integration into Israeli society. Another forum speaker cited favorably the infamous 2009 Kairos Palestine Document that aims to de-legitimize Israel as a Jewish state and seeks to deny any Jewish connection to the land, ignoring irrefutable historical and archaeological evidence that proves there's been a sustained and vibrant Jewish presence in the land of Israel for more than 4000 years.
Recognizing the unfairness and hypocrisy of an effort to single out and punish the only Middle East state that struggles every day to better reflect liberal values, the United Methodist Church in May rejected a similar divestment proposal by a more than two to one margin. I urge my Presbyterian friends to do the same: Please urge your church leaders to act in the interests of peace and justice and defeat a resolution that would foster just the opposite. United, Jews and Presbyterians can once again work together -- in the words of the prophet Micah -- to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God."
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