Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Israel, the PCUSA, and "Divestment"

Divestment?  From Israel?

That's the rumbling issue that's raising eyebrows, as the PC(USA) holds our biannual Meeting di tutti Meetings.

For all the kerfuffle, I don't know that what the Presbyterian Church is considering can even be meaningfully described as "divestment."  Sure, there are folks out there advocating for that approach, but that's not what's being done.  At no point has any proposal been seriously considered that would sell my old-line denomination's collective holdings in all businesses that operate in Israel.  That's just not gonna happen.

The question, for Presbyterians, is whether or not we can treat businesses who operate in Israel in the same way we treat business which operate in the United States.  For example, the PC(USA) does not invest in American businesses that build or design weapons.  We also do not, as a matter of principle, invest in the very profitable businesses that own or manage privatized prisons.

We don't hold stock in Lockheed Martin.  We don't hold stock in the Corrections Corporation of America.

Do such businesses serve the security of the United States?  Sure, on some level, as icky as it is. Would we be wealthier if we'd laid all our money into them?  Just click those links, and see how profitable human brokenness can be.

But as a free association of individuals, we are fully entitled to place our capital into endeavors that more clearly articulate our shared values as a community.  Because those values are fundamentally countercultural in this society, profitability and maximization of shareholder return are not our only metrics.  Far, far from it.

While that impacts the sorts of businesses in which the church invests, having a socially responsible investing strategy could not be sanely understood as "divesting from America."  Neither would it be rationally defensible to describe choosing not to invest in such business as a "slippery slope" to "divesting from America."

Similarly, choosing not to invest in businesses--American ones, I might add--that serve the purposes of coercive power in the Israeli/Palestinian mess does not mean that we are "divesting from Israel."

If a business is owned and operated in Israel, that's all well and good.  It could make funky and practical little sandals, or cosmetics, or gaming software.  These are not weapons, or part of an oppressive power structure within a nation state.  Those companies, the PC(USA) can still invest in.  They are simply creating products from the economy of a democratic ally of the United States.  If an American business works in Israel?  Also not an issue, so long as it doesn't do the same things there that would lead us to not invest in here in the US.

There are some on the left who call for more expansive punitive sanctions against the whole nation of Israel, the complete withdrawal of resources from any business that works with that state.  As a denomination, the PC(USA) has never seriously considered being part of the "BDS" movement.

More significantly, broad calls for blanket divestment make no sense in this context.  If an entire system is fundamentally and unworkably corrupt and oppressive, sure.  It's why people who care about the good do not invest in Iran, or in North Korea.

But Israel, troubled and imperfect though it is, is not in the same category as such states.   There is a viable parliamentary democracy in Israel.  Speech there is free, and the press is not muzzled or beaten into silence.  There is active and unsuppressed debate, including the voices of Israelis who are deeply troubled by the way a right-wing led Israel is treating the Palestinian people.

It would not be in the interests of peace--or justice--for the Presbyterian church to disengage from Israel.  If we have anything to contribute to the cause of peace, it is in respectful and honest conversations with our Jewish friends and colleagues.  There, we can share the pain we hear from our Palestinian brothers and sisters in faith, who yearn for peace even under the harsh conditions in which they live.

If we slam that door closed, using the power of our mammon to build a wall between us, then that role would be compromised.  Which is why that is not even close to being on the table.  Nor should it be, so long as Israel remains a state worthy of its sacred name.

The more radical BDS folks want to say that what we're doing is "divestment", because it would represent a "win."   Those reactionaries who want folks who care about Israel to be afraid?  They want to say this would be "divestment."  That fear of an isolated Israel conveniently obscures hard realities that they don't want seen or discussed.  But the reality of what's being proposed remains.

It's three American businesses, and if they were doing what they were doing in Israel in the United States--facilitating a peculiar mix of war and the incarceration of an entire people--we'd sell our stock in them.

All we're trying to be is consistent.


  1. While you make a solid argument regarding why it might be reasonable to look at some, but not all, PCUSA investments in light of common principles (to not invest in weapons or prisons, for example), this decision needs to be looked at in the broader context of what how a PCUSA divestment decision will be seen by and communicated to the wider world.

    Simply put, those pushing for divestment within the church are the same people who published documents like "Zionism Unsettled" where their beliefs (that a Jewish state is inherently unacceptable) and goals (a One State solution) are at odds with, among other things, long-standing PCUSA policy.

    More importantly, if PCUSA passes divestment (even based on your arguments) the message these partisans will communicate to the world is not the reasonably conclusions you draw in your piece. Rather, the message will be "The Presbyterians agree with us that Israel is an Apartheid state which means you should divest from this evil entity as well."

    And once that message goes out, many people who had no idea that divestment was back on the table after the church rejected it in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012 (including, I suspect, a majority of Presbyterians) will be back in the position of having to defend a set of accusations they do not accept, communicated by people who represent the values of the BDS movement, not the values of church members who will have to live with the fallout of this political choice.

  2. I appreciate your concerns, DT, and share some of them. I found Zionism Unsettled to be of limited use as a document. It's an articulation of Palestinian pain, and as such, was worth hearing. But I do not share many of the operating assumptions of that text.

    Neither is any of this simple or binary. It just isn't, and when we allow the false polarities of partisanship to define our responses, we fail.

    And as for "living with fallout?" My sons are Jewish. My wife is Jewish. She is on the board of her synagogue...which means I'm a member of the synagogue, too. If this passes, I'm committed to going and talking with them about it. I'm the Presbyterian who gets to explain this to his Jewish mother in law. You think I don't know what this implies? Lord have mercy, do I know.

  3. I suspect that you do understand the consequences of such a vote and, given your involvement with the toughest audience of all (in laws) you are clearly ready to take on the challenge of explaining this to Jews in your family and community who might be offended. But what of those hundreds of thousands of other Presbyterians who will be taken by surprise (as they were in 2004) and have to greet a reporter at their door asking for a 15 second sound bite regarding why the church hates Israel?

    And what happens if the Jewish community (including your synagogue) decides that they have gotten tired of being slapped in the face every two years by their "interfaith partners" and decide a continuing relationship with PCUSA is no longer worth preserving.

    Where will your conversation go if it turns out a vote leading to parades of people circling the globe declaring "The PCUSA agrees with us that Israel is an Apartheid state" tells them the church has behaved either dishonestly or recklessly? And what conversations do you plan to have with those who will unquestionably be spreading the "Israel = Apartheid" gospel (in your name) to try to get them to act in accordance with what you thought you were voting on?

  4. Alrighty then, in order:

    1) Those hundreds of thousands of Presbyterians can say: "The church does not hate Israel. Get your facts straight." It does help to be paying attention.

    2) This vote, presented squarely and straightforwardly, is not a slap in the face. Will it be spun that way? Of course. For those of us who love the Jewish people, and support their culture and their faith, we'll just have to keep saying that. I certainly will, as will others of good faith.

    3) Israel does not equal apartheid. I'm not prepared to say that, because I do not believe it. Again, will partisans try to spin this specific decision that way? Of course. My conversations with them will reflect my beliefs.

    Given your initial comment, I'd be interested in your thoughts on the current viability of the "two-state solution." I struggle with that, because the situation on the ground has shifted so significantly in the last two decades. Half a generation ago, before Rabin was assassinated, that was the best hope. Try as I might, I have a great deal of difficulty seeing a viable Palestinian state in the scattered, diffuse gerrymander that currently stands. Nor can I imagine a Likud-driven coalition abandoning settlements. How would you see that working?

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. You're bringing up two issues in your comment, one on the PCUSA vote, one one general Middle East politics.

    Regarding the vote, I don't think most Presbyterians realize that the ability of BDS advocates to speak in the name of the church is what this vote is all about.

    So even if you tell your Jewish family members that the "Israel=Apartheid" analogy is false, you are going to have to complete with the entire BDS movement explaining to anyone who will listen that this is exactly what the vote was all about.

    That's why PCUSA has been asked to vote on divestment GA after GA after GA, regardless of choices by previous GAs to reject returning to what happened in 2004. That's why promises made to the Jewish community again and again to bring balance to dialog about the Middle East within the church get broken to the level of "Zionism Unsettled" which you might see as "of limited use," but which large swaths of the Jewish community consider (accurately) as a direct assault on Jewish claims to peoplehood, as well as a rejection of the Two State solution that your second question implies you continue to hope for.

    The reason BDS has become a permanent agenda item for the church (in contrast to nearly every other international issue one can name) might be because Israel-Palestine is the most serious global issue facing the church and the world today. Alternatively, it may have become a PCUSA obsession because a group of partisans within the church have made BDS (not the church and certainly not interfaith relations) their top priority.

  7. Regarding the viability of a Two State solution, the lens I take on the situation makes me both more optimistic and pessimistic than you.

    If the Middle East consists of Israel refusing to allow an Arab political presence in their midst, then I suppose settlements and current Israeli political alignments are the most pressing issues standing in the way of a two-state solution.

    But if the Middle East actually consists of dozens of Arab countries that refuse to accept a Jewish political presence in their midst, then the issues we (including PCUSA) should be dealing with to bring about peace in the region are much bigger (perhaps bigger than church leaders want to admit, much less take on).

    The reason I'm optimistic is that past Israeli offers to the Palestinians indicate that - even if settlements and Netenyahu seem like deal breakers to you - all kinds of Israeli leaders have been willing to make substantial offers to the Palestinians in exchange for peace.

    The reason I'm pessimistic is that not only have each of those offers been rejected (sometimes in favor of war), but that when people decide that "something must be done" in response to the continuation of conflict, they always take the same steps PCUSA is taking of trying to figure out how to punish just one party (Israel) for any impasse and refusing to acknowledge the reality of the role played by everyone else in the region, even with hundreds of thousands of Arab corpses that cannot be blamed on Israel shouting out where real responsibility lies for a lack of peace.

  8. I think the idea of "punishment" is a significant part of the problem. Would Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions be punishment? Absolutely. Cutting off economic and social ties to Israel would be unacceptable, which is why I'm not a BDS supporter. Shunning just isn't particularly Presbyterian, nor does it bring healing.

    Which is why, if we take this entirely justifiable and consistent action, we need to do so clearly, and with full awareness of the way it will be "spun."

  9. I have no doubt that you as an individual will present a reasoned argument to your Jewish friends and family members about how any divestment decision made by the church does not represent the goals of BDS (regardless of the thousands of time members of the BDS movement will insist that it does through every conceivable channel).

    The problem is, the only way the church can communicate its agreement with you (vs. the BDSers) would be to make an official statement (or pass an Overture) specifically distancing itself (or even condemning) the goals of BDS. And having watched this issue play out in GA after GA for the last ten years, I have yet to see anything emerging from any part of PCUSA that comes close to making such a clear statement on the subject.

    I have no doubt that you believe a church divestment vote would maintain this distinction (even if it's not made explicit), but given the history of PCUSA leaders telling one thing to their alleged interfaith partners in the Jewish community and then turning a blind eye towards "unhelpful" political attacks like "Zionism Unsettle," I'm not confident anyone outside your immediate circle will receive the non-BDS message you feel is implicit in this divestment vote.

    Given this, might it make sense to postpone divestment until a specific anti-BDS policy can be made the official position of the church? After all, the first role of a genuine peace maker should be to do no harm.

  10. Some synthesized thoughts deriving from our conversation appear at http://divestthis.com/2014/06/pcusa-bds-will-dialog-solve.html.

  11. DT - did you see that the overture to divest included precisely such a statement distancing the PCUSA from the BDS movement? It reaffirmed the two state solution, the right of Israel to exist, the importance of interfaith dialogue... it was every single anti-BDS talking point possible plus an acceptance of the MRTI recommendation to selectively divest from 3 American corporations engaged in practices that everyone agrees violate our longstanding social-witness policy. There is no way to be clearer than this.

    Sure others are going to spin it. So be it. Our commitment to morale investment isn't determined by spin and should not be.