Presbyterian Divestment Redux: All Eyes on Detroit!

ga1-580x580While the public criticism and upheaval over BDS continues apace, this movement is slowly and inexorably tallying victory after victory. Last week, the Gates Foundation announced that it was fully divesting from G4S – a British/Danish security firm that has been severely criticized for its operations in the occupied Palestinian territories and in prisons and detention centers in Israel, including those housing children and “administrative detainees” held without charge or trial.

Now just this week, we’ve learned that the United Methodist Church – the largest mainline Protestant church in the United States – will be pulling all its investments from G4S as well. This news is huge – and a dramatic precursor to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which will be convening in Detroit next week. I can’t help but think the BDS tide is turning significantly, particularly in the arena of church divestment campaigns.

I’ve long participated with colleagues in Protestant church groups who have been actively involved in promoting the principled and targeted divestment of their denominations’ funds from companies that profit from Israel’s illegal and oppressive occupation of Palestinians. I was, in fact, an active supporter of the divestment “overture” brought to the last Presbyterian GA two years ago and wrote extensively about these efforts.

This is what I wrote at the time:

I support this resolution without reservation and urge other Jewish leaders and community members to do so as well. I am deeply dismayed that along every step of this process, Jewish community organizations (among them, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs) that purport to speak for the consensus of a diverse constituency have been intimidating and emotionally blackmailing the Presbyterian Church as they attempt to forge their ethical investment strategy in good faith.

It is extremely important to be clear about what is at stake here. First of all, this is not a resolution that seeks to boycott or single out Israel. Divestment does not target countries – it targets companies.  In this regard speaking, the PC (USA)’s ethical investment process seeks to divest from specific “military-related companies” it deems are engaged in “non-peaceful” pursuits.

We’d be hard-pressed indeed to make the case that the Israeli government is engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem.  I won’t go into detail here because I’ve been writing about this tragic issue for many years: the increasing of illegal Jewish settlements with impunity, the forced evictions and home demolitions, the uprooting of Palestinian orchards, the separation wall that chokes off Palestinians from their lands, the arbitrary administrative detentions, the brutal crushing of non-violent protest, etc, etc.

All Americans – Jews and non-Jews alike – have cause for deep moral concern over these issues.  Moreover, we have cause for dismay that own government tacitly supports these actions. At the very least, we certainly have the right to make sure that our own investments do not support companies that profit from what we believe to be immoral acts committed in furtherance of Israel’s occupation.

As the co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, I am proud that JVP has initiated its own divestment campaign which targets the TIAA-CREF pension fund, urging it to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation. Among these are two of the three companies currently under consideration by PC (USA): Motorola and Caterpillar.

Why the concern over these specific companies? Because they are indisputably and directing aiding and profiting the oppression of Palestinians on the ground. Caterpillar profits from the destruction of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of Palestinian orchards by supplying the armor-plated and weaponized bulldozers that are used for such demolition work.  Motorola profits from Israel’s control of the Palestinian population by providing surveillance systems around Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and military camps in the West Bank, as well as communication systems to the Israeli army and West Bank settlers.

And why is Hewlett-Packard under consideration for divestment by the PC (USA)? HP owns Electronic Data Systems, which heads a consortium providing monitoring of checkpoints, including several built inside the West Bank in violation of international law.  The Israeli Navy, which regularly attacks Gaza’s fishermen within Gaza’s own territorial waters and has often shelled civilian areas in the Gaza Strip, has chosen HP Israel to implement the outsourcing of its IT infrastructure.  In addition, Hewlett Packard subsidiary HP Invent outsources IT services to a company called Matrix, which employs settlers in the illegal settlement of Modi’in Illit to do much of its IT work at low wages.

I repeat: by seeking to divest from these companies the PC (USA) is not singling out Israel as a nation.  The Presbyterian Church has every right to – and in fact does – divest its funds from any number of companies that enable non-peaceful pursuits around the world.  In this case specifically, the PC (USA) has reasonably determined that these particular “pursuits” aid a highly militarized, brutal and oppressive occupation – and it simply does not want to be complicit in supporting companies that enable it.

I encourage you to read the entire post, which also includes a detailed history of the process undertaken by the Presbyterian Church (USA). The current overture, like the one two years ago, seeks divestment from the same three companies: Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar.

And inevitably, like before, the overture’s sponsors and their supporters have been subjected to an unrelenting barrage of criticisms and accusations from certain quarters of the Jewish establishment. I am particularly dismayed to learn that J St. – ostensibly an anti-occupation organization – is once again joining forces with those who hope to quash this principled, good faith proposal.

On this point, I’m in full agreement with Israeli journalist Larry Derfner, who recently wrote:

J Street was instrumental in beating back the same motion in 2012, when it failed before the church’s General Assembly by a vote of 333–331. But that was then. Then it was possible to argue (although I’d already stopped) that there was still hope that the United States would pressure Israel into making peace. Then it was still at least reasonable for J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami to tell the Presbyterian Church, “Reject divestment, and embrace full-on pursuit of the diplomatic efforts necessary to create genuine and lasting peace for Israel and the Palestinian people.”

But now? What argument can an anti-occupation movement make to the Presbyterian Church in June 2014 about why it should not divest from Caterpillar’s bulldozers, Hewlett-Packard’s ID system for Palestinians and Motorola’s surveillance machines? Because it would interfere with U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East? Because it would harden the Netanyahu government’s stance in the peace talks?

From an anti-occupation perspective, what is there to lose by a Presbyterian Church vote for divestment? Nothing. But what is there to gain? A blow against injustice, the kind that has been scaring the Netanyahu government and Israel lobby like nothing else — certainly not the Obama administration — which is a very good sign that the BDS campaign is on to something.

With the failure of the peace process and Israel’s recent announcement of 1,500 new settlements, it is clear that political pressure has been utterly ineffective in bringing a just solution to this unjust occupation. Why then, must we block attempts at the popular, nonviolent pressure tactics such divestment – particularly when such efforts have been demonstrably effective in other parts of the world?

I will be posting much more about the divestment overture at Presbyterian GA in the coming week. Stay tuned.


JVP Rabbis Passover Message: This Year Let’s Divest from Hewlett-Packard!

Here’s a new Passover video message from the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, which uses the final line of the seder, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” as a cue to examine the current dire reality in earthly Jerusalem. Please watch – and consider using its text as a reading/call to action at your seder this year:

This year in Jerusalem, Israeli policies seek to limit the number of Palestinians who can live in the city.

This year in Jerusalem,  Palestinian Jerusalemites are deemed “permanent residents.” Israel considers them immigrants even though for many, Jerusalem has been their family’s home for generations.

This year in Jerusalem, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, is maintained by daily practices of surveillance and control.  In recent years, these practices have increasingly relied on technology provided by international corporations.

This year in Jerusalem: a Hewlett-Packard powered system divides Palestinians into four categories, each with different rights: blue Israeli IDs, green-blue Palestinian-Jerusalem IDs, green West Bank IDs and orange Gaza IDs.

According to Human Rights Watch, over 640,000 Palestinians risk separation from a direct family member who holds a different colored ID. Hewlett-Packard profits from this colored ID system that divides Palestinian families and loved ones.

This year in Jerusalem:  Israel’s “Cen­ter of Life” policy requires that Palestinian Jerusalemites prove continuous residency in the city to retain their Jerusalem IDs.  There is no such requirement for Jewish Israelis.

This year in Jerusalem:  More than 120,000 family unification applications remain unprocessed. Over 10,000 Jerusalem children are estimated to be unregistered and more than 14,000 Jerusalem residencies have been revoked.

The decision to grant or deny Jerusalem residency for Palestinians is at the discretion of the Israeli government.  Meanwhile Jews throughout the world are entitled to receive automatic and immediate citizenship through Israel’s Law of Return for Jews and reside in Jerusalem at will.

Hundreds of churches, colleges and socially responsible retirement funds continue to be invested in Hewlett-Packard.  This year let’s divest from Hewlett Packard, so that next year, bashana ha’baah, we’ll be one step closer to the day when Palestinian families can gather and pray freely in Jerusalem.

This year, let’s divest from Hewlett Packard, so that next year, bashana ha’baah, we will be one step closer to Jerusalem being a just home for all of its residents.

This year, let’s divest from Hewlett Packard, so that next year, b’shana ha’baah, we will be one step closer to Jerusalem truly being a city of peace.

(To take a Passover pledge to support full freedom of movement for all Jerusalemites, click here.)


My Conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman

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This past Sunday I had the great pleasure and honor to participate in a open conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman in “Progressive Politics from the Pulpit,” a program sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace – Los Angeles. As Rabbi Beerman has been one of my true rabbinical heroes for so many years, it was truly a thrill for me to share a podium with him as we shared our thoughts on the challenges facing congregational rabbis who engage in progressive social justice activism.

As a Los Angeles native myself, I’ve long known of Rabbi Beerman’s inspired work during the years he served as the Senior Rabbi of LA’s Leo Baeck Temple. He was the founding rabbi of Leo Baeck in 1949 and stayed there for the next 37 years until his retirement in 1986. During that time, he challenged his congregants – and the Jewish community at large – to awaken to some of the most critical socio-political issues of the late 20th century.

Rabbi Beerman was a maverick in his day – and in many ways still is. He is a self-described pacifist who came by his stance honestly, after serving in the Marines in World War II and in the Haganah in 1947 while attending the newly founded Hebrew University. He was a student of Rabbi Judah Magnes, the great Reform leader who advocated for a bi-national state for Jews and Arabs – and he remains a passionate advocate for a just peace in Israel/Palestine to this day.

Rabbi Beerman came to Leo Baeck fresh from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati during the height of the Cold War and quickly became an outspoken and visionary peace activist. In one of my very favorite stories, he described his anguish at the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which took place on a Friday afternoon in 1953. During Shabbat services that evening, he decided to add their names to the end of the yahrtzeit list (the list of names read before the recitation of the Kaddish) much to the dismay of some of his congregants.

Rabbi Beerman was also one of the first rabbis in the country to publicly condemn the US war in Vietnam and later instituted draft counseling in his congregation. He invited such figures as Daniel Ellsberg (who spoke on Yom Kippur afternoon while he was awaiting trial) and Cesar Chavez to speak at his synagogue. Rabbi Beerman was also a visionary leader for civil rights and worker justice and during the nuclear arms race was one of the leading Jewish voices in the disarmament movement.

I’ve particularly admired Rabbi Beerman’s fearlessness when it came to the subject of Israel/Palestine – clearly the issue that has earned him the angriest criticism from the Jewish establishment. He was a consistent and faithful advocate for justice for the Palestinian people long before such a thing was even countenanced in the Jewish community. Literally going where few other rabbis would dare to tread, he met with Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Fatah founder Abu Jihad. That he was able to do all of this while serving a large, established Los Angeles synagogue speaks volumes about his integrity – and the abiding trust he was able to maintain with the members of his congregation.

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Now in his 90s, Rabbi Beerman is still deeply engaged in the issues of our day. During our conversation together, we spoke about the current state of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the languishing peace process and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I mentioned to those present that in 2008, during the height of Operation Cast Lead, when Rabbi Brian Walt and I were calling rabbinical colleagues to sign on to a Jewish Fast for Gaza, Rabbi Beerman was one of the first to sign on without hesitation. He did the same when we were forming the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and his presence there is truly an inspiration to our members.

I’m still feeling so happy and proud to have been able to share the stage with Rabbi Beerman. Heartfelt thanks to Estee Chandler, the head of JVP – LA for her masterful stewardship of this wonderful event. Thanks also to Eliyahu and Pennie Ungar-Sargon for filming the program – I’ll post the finished video of our talk when it is complete.

PS: After the program was over, I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Beerman’s wife, children and grandchildren, who were sitting in the front section. As we chatted I mentioned to them how wonderful it felt to get such a nice reception, adding that Leonard and I were worried there might be “troublemakers” in attendance. His daughter smiled and said, “The only troublemakers were up on the stage…”


Prawer Plan Scrapped – How Will the “Bedouin Problem” be Solved?

Children flying kites to the demonstration against the Prawer Plan during November 30 "Day of Rage" protest outside Hura in the Negev Desert.

Children protest against the Prawer Plan during a “Day of Rage” demonstration in the Negev town of Hura.

Received the wonderful news yesterday that Israel’s Prawer-Begin Plan – a bill which would forcibly relocate over 40,000 Israeli Bedouin from their ancestral lands – was just scrapped by the Knesset.

This is huge on a number of levels. Most importantly, it’s very welcome news for the tens of the thousands of Bedouin who were facing an unjust eviction and transfer from their homes. Up until relatively recently, in fact, the passage of Prawer seemed virtually assured. But as I mentioned in my last post, Knesset support began to unravel when Benny Begin, the co-sponsor of the bill, revealed that he had never even shown the plan to the Bedouin – putting to lie the widespread claims of government officials that the majority of Bedouins had approved of it.

After revealing a map of the actual plan, the Knesset’s right wing attacked it, claiming it actually allocated too much land to the Bedouin (even though it would have taken 61,700 acres from them and resettled them in a compound totaling 42,000 acres.) Feeling the pressure from both sides, the government was forced to scrap their plan entirely.

As I’ve followed this issue, I’ve found it utterly infuriating whenever I read supporters of the bill invoke a “Bedouin Problem” that needed to be solved, as if the economic and social issues facing the Bedouin were somehow of their own making. In truth, there is no need for a special government relocation bill to “solve” this “problem.” What the Bedouin need is for the Israeli government to officially recognize the areas in which they live so that they can finally receive basic infrastructure such as water, sewage, and electricity. They need Israel to treat them them as equal citizens, offering them full government services, to allow them to vote or run in local government elections.

But they can’t, of course, because Israel desires to create more facts on the ground in the Negev. In other words, the real “Bedouin Problem” stems from the fact that the Bedouin are not Jewish.

Of course the scrapping of this bill does not mean that the fate of the Bedouin is by any means assured. There is every possibility that the government will resubmit the plan in an even more draconian fashion. As Mairav Zonszein pointed out yesterday in +972mag:

While today’s news will at the very least delay the State’s plan to implement the largest displacement a Palestinian population since 1967, there is little reason for celebration. It it will only be the end of the current version, which  was in jeopardy mostly due to concerns from right-wing MKs that it was “too generous” to the Bedouin.  It is probable a revised bill will be drafted that will in all likelihood not be any better as far as Bedouin claims.

While this may well come to pass, it is fair to say that a more restrictive bill will undeniably be met with fierce opposition from a powerful and widespread movement of solidarity that has now coalesced to support the Bedouin’s cause. And this is another reason why the scrapping of Prawer-Begin is so significant: it speaks to the growing power and influence of the Palestinian solidarity movement.

Indeed, over the past several months, this movement was galvanized by Prawer-Begin, bringing together a wide coalition of organizations in Israel/Palestine and abroad. The tipping point was reached two weeks ago during the “Days of Rage” protests, in which hundreds of Palestinians and solidarity activists staged demonstrations in the Negev town of Hura as well as Haifa, East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Jaffa. Simultaneous protests took place throughout the world in London, Berlin, Rome, Istanbul, Cairo and in the US. There is a very real movement growing, and it is slowly but surely chalking up significant victories for the cause of justice in Israel/Palestine.

Still, while there is every reason for this movement to celebrate this latest legislative success, the need for vigilance ever continues. Many Bedouin homes and villages are still slated for demolition – and the village of Al-Araqib has already been demolished over 60 times. As this press release from Jewish Voice for Peace aptly puts it:

We can exhale for now, with relief the Prawer Plan is no more, and then take a new breath and get ready to continue the work to ensure that the Negev Bedouin, and all people in the region, have what they need to thrive.


Sukkot Activism: Young Jews Protest the Prawer Plan in Chicago


This past Wednesday there was a powerful action in front of the Israeli Consulate in Chicago: a Sukkot protest against the Israeli government’s Prawer Plan, which is currently poised to evict up to 40,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel from their homes in the Negev desert.

As you can see from the clip above, this action was organized by a community of young Chicago Jews inspired by the Sukkot festival’s message of shelter and salvation to stand in solidarity with Bedouin who are on the verge of devastating displacement. An inspiring example of spiritual activism at its finest – bravo to Young, Jewish Proud/Jewish Voice for Peace for spearheading this action in Chicago (as well as a simultaneous event in Boston!)

As I wrote last June, the Prawer Plan has already passed its first reading in the Knesset – and there are already disturbing indications that the plan has already begun to be implemented. If you live in the Midwest, please join us this Monday, September 30, for a collective “Call in to Stop Prawer!” (Details here.) And if you haven’t yet, please sign this Avaaz petition that urges Knesset members to follow their conscience “support a solution coordinated in cooperation with local residents instead of this discriminative bill.”

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“Wrestling in the Daylight” in Seattle

Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course.  In the meantime here’s a taste:


On Open Hillel, Open Debate and Open Minds

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Last November, Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance prepared to sponsor “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation.” One week before it was set to take place at Harvard Hillel, Hillel decided to pull the plug on the program. Why? Because Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee was a co-sponsor.

In defense of its position, Harvard Hillel cited the guidelines of Hillel International that state Hillel organizations “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support the “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel.” And since the Harvard PSC promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions, this was enough for Hillel to kibosh a program sponsored by a Jewish student group.

If this sounds vaguely like deja vu to you, that’s because back in March 2011, Brandeis University Hillel refused to allow student chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace to affiliate under its umbrella, citing the very same guidelines. Then senior Lev Hirschorn commented at the time:

We feel like we deserve a seat at the Jewish communal table, but there is a sense that dissent on the question of Israel is not really acceptable.

As open debate and discussion have been indelible aspects of Jewish culture from time immemorial these attempts at muzzling students’ voices are particularly egregious. Hillel International’s guidelines (which are not obligatory for local Hillels) essentially ensure that there will be no honest and open Jewish conversations about Israel on campuses across the country. They will most certainly exclude growing Jewish student groups such as JVP – and they will also prevent Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, since almost all Palestinian campus groups support BDS.

Trust me on this: this has everything to do with the Jewish establishment’s fear of letting young Jews think for themselves on the subject of Israel. Not convinced? Just read this recent piece in the Washington Jewish Week, in which Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt (chairperson of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinical Council) offered up this choice observation:

I think it is important to begin to help prepare our children for what they are going to encounter on college campuses in regard to pro-Palestinian groups, the anti-Israel groups on Israel and radical fringe groups like Jewish Voices for Peace.

These are not J Street. Our kids are relatively sheltered, and they go to college and are confronted with hostility and misinformation. I want them to be equipped with the knowledge and understanding of the historical justification for the existence of the state of Israel.

Well that certainly says it all. We need to protect our poor, vulnerable, non-critically thinking young people from Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups that advocate for the rights of Palestinians.  Since we can’t trust college students to think for themselves, we must “equip” them with what we deem to be the acceptable historical Jewish opinions on Israel. This profoundly patronizing, pseudo mind-controlling approach to Jewish outreach explains why the Jewish establishment is fast making itself irrelevant to young people – and why it feels compelled to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars yearly to send college students on all expenses paid Birthright junkets and free trips to the National AIPAC Convention.

Please join me in advocating for a Jewish student community that respects a plurality of Jewish student voices on Israel/Palestine. Please sign this petition by Open Hillel, a coalition of students that seek to change the “standards of partnership” in Hillel International’s guidelines and encourages local campus Hillels to adopt policies that “allow for free discourse on all subjects within the Hillel community.”

From the Open Hillel website:

We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International’s mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views.

In addition, we believe that inter-community dialogue and free discourse, even on difficult subjects, is essential in the context of an educational institution and a democratic society. Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture’s long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.

Sure doesn’t sound like the words of “sheltered,” “unequipped” young people to me…


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