The Presbyterian Divestment Vote: Toward a New Model of Community Relations

Cross-posted with Tikkun Daily

Jews and Presbyterians pray together during deliberations at the 2014 Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit

In the wake of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent decision to divest from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation, Jewish establishment leaders have been expressing their displeasure toward the PC(USA) in no uncertain terms.

Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman stated last week that church leaders have “fomented an atmosphere of open hostility to Israel.” Rabbi Noam Marans director of interreligious relations at the American Jewish Committee, declared that “the PC(USA) decision is celebrated by those who believe they are one step closer to a Jew-free Middle East.” And Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, publicly accused the PC(USA) of having a “deep animus” against “both the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

Given such extreme rhetoric, it may come as a surprise to many that the same overture that called for the Presbyterian Foundation and Board of Pensions to divest from Caterpillar, Inc., Hewett-Packard and Motorola Solutions also included the following resolutions:

– (To) reaffirm Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders in accordance with the United Nations resolutions;

– (To) declare its commitment to a two-state solution in which a secure and universally recognized State of Israel lives alongside a free, viable, and secure state for the Palestinian people;

– (To) reaffirm PC(USA)’s commitment to interfaith dialog and partnerships with the American Jewish, Muslim friends and Palestinian Christians and call for all presbyteries and congregations within the PC(USA) to include interfaith dialogue and relationship-building as part of their own engagement in working for a just peace.

– (To) urge all church institutions to give careful consideration to possible investments in Israel-Palestine that advance peace and improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis.”

Do these sound like the words of a “hostile” church committed to a “Jew-free Middle East?”

In truth, these are the words of a religious community struggling in good faith to walk the path of justice while still remaining sensitive to the concerns of their Jewish sisters and brothers.

Such a description certainly comports with my own personal experience. I attended the Presbyterian General Assembly last week as part of the Jewish Voice for Peace delegation and had lengthy conversations with numerous GA commissioners. When I asked them to share their feelings about the divestment overture, the majority responded with a similar refrain: in their hearts they wanted to vote in favor, but they hesitated because they were worried what it might do to their relationships with their Jewish family and friends and colleagues.

This theme occurred repeatedly during the committee and plenum debates as well. Commissioners who opposed the overture relied less on political arguments than upon their concern for their personal relationships with Jews and with the Jewish community at large. Many commissioners who spoke in favor of the overture expressed similar concerns even as they decided to cast their votes as a matter of deeply held conscience.

In the end, the process that led up to the final vote on divestment was one of genuine discernment and faithful witness. To be sure, the final wording of the overture is a nuanced statement by a church that clearly seeks to follow its sacred mission of justice in Israel/Palestine even as it cherishes its long-standing relationship with the Jewish community.

As a Jew, I was deeply saddened that so many Jewish establishment leaders saw fit to resort to what can only be called emotional blackmail in order to fight against a Presbyterian overture that they didn’t like. But for all the undue pressure, I have no doubt that the heavy-handed nature of these tactics ultimately contributed in no small way to the success of the final divestment overture.

Notably, during the plenum discussion, one commissioner commented that he was “offended” to see some Jewish opponents to the overture wearing T-shirts that said “Love us or Leave Us.” Another asked if Reform movement President Rabbi Rick Jacob’s offer to broker a meeting in Jerusalem between Presbyterian leaders and Benyamin Netanyahu if they voted down the overture was somehow a thinly veiled threat.

As a Jewish supporter of divestment, I will say without hesitation that this vote was first and foremost a victory for Palestinians, who continue to suffer under Israel’s illegal and immoral occupation. On a secondary level, however, we might say that this was a victory for a religious community that refused to let its sacred convictions be stymied by cynical pressure.

As for us, the Jewish community is left with the very real question: Are we truly prepared to write off one of the largest American Christian denominations over this vote – a vote that was taken in good faith and with profound deliberation? And on a deeper level, we might well ask ourselves honestly, have the Jewish communal establishment’s bullying tactics finally reached the end of their usefulness?

Indeed, when it comes to the issue of Israel/Palestine, the unwritten rule of the Jewish establishment has always been, “toe our line or feel our wrath.” By voting for divestment, the PC(USA) declared itself ready to stand down this ultimatum.

There is now every reason to believe other denominations will now follow suit. Will our community continue to respond with cynical threats or will we finally be ready to model an approach to community relations grounded in trust, understanding and mutual respect?

17 thoughts on “The Presbyterian Divestment Vote: Toward a New Model of Community Relations

  1. Benjamin Ben-Baruch

    The Jewish establishment actually won this round — and I suspect they know this. The Presbyterian GA felt obligated to include the Zionist rhetoric of supporting Israel’s right to exist and supporting a two state solution. None of this should have been included in a US organization’s decision to divest itself of funds in US corporations! The Jewish right-wing succeeded in maintaining it’s control of the way a in which this issue gets discussed.

    1. Mike Okrent

      Note the statement did not say the right to exist as a Jewish State, merely to exist. I would not give the round to the Jewish establishment

      1. Benjamin Ben-Baruch

        We don’t talk about any other state in terms of a “right to exist”. States don’t have rights! People have rights. When we talk about states having rights we are using the fascist political language of the Revisionist Zionist movement. (In the Zionist movement in which I was raised, we were taught to be proud of the fact that we forced the revisionists out of the Zionist Organization because it’s ideology and values were so odious.)

    2. David Rosenberg

      In response to Benjamin Ben-Baruch’s comment about who has a “right to exist”: People have certain types of rights (we often refer to these as “human rights”) and states have other types of rights. The following is copied from a wikipedia article in order to provide historical context for the use of the term “right to exist” as applied to states.:

      Thomas Paine used the phrase “right to exist” to refer to forms of government, arguing that representative government has a right to exist, but that hereditary government does not. In 1823, Sir Walter Scott argued for the “right to exist in the Greek people”. (The Greeks were then revolting against Turkish rule.) According to Renan’s “What is a Nation?” (1882), “So long as this moral consciousness [called a nation] gives proof of its strength by the sacrifices which demand the abdication of the individual to the advantage of the community, it is legitimate and has the right to exist. If doubts arise regarding its frontiers, consult the populations in the areas under dispute.” Existence is not a historical right, but “a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life,” Renan said. The phrase gained enormous usage in reference to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. “If Turkey has a right to exist – and the Powers are very prompt to assert that she has – she possesses an equally good right to defend herself against all attempts to imperil her political existence,” wrote Eliakim and Robert Littell in 1903. In many cases, a nation’s right to exist is not questioned, and is therefore not asserted.

      1. Benjy Ben-Baruch

        I repeat. Talking about the rights of states — especially the rights of states that are the national states of some ethnic or cultural or religious group — is to use the fascist political language of extreme right-wing nationalists.

        Mr. Rosenberg argues that because PEOPLE have the right to form representative governments, all states have a right to exist. Poppycock! Moreover, Israel can no longer be said to have a representative government. With the exception of a single year since 1948, 1/4 to 1/5 of the Israel’s population has been under a military government and has been politically disempowered.

        But most importantly, it is VERY clear that when the current government pushes its proposal to declare Israel to be the nation state of the Jewish people, it is advocating for a non-democratic state that serves the interests of the Jewish people (as it defines Jews and as it defines Jewish interests).

        This is an essentially fascist vision of a state. It is the vision of the Revisionist Zionist movement — and the reason the Revisionists were forced to leave the ZO in 1935. No liberal or democratic political philosopher in the last 300 years has argued that this kind of political entity has any rights whatsoever. On the contrary! Liberal and socialist and democratic political philosophies all maintain that people have the right — and even obligation! — to overthrow states and governments that are unjust to the people living under their power.

        Israel is a state. It does not have rights. The Jewish people have rights. The Palestinian people have rights. All of the people living under Israel’s sovereignty have rights. The state has an obligation to guarantee and protect these rights of all of people subject to its sovereignty. The current state of Israel does NOT recognize this obligation.

      2. David Rosenberg

        Mr. Ben-Baruch appears to be taking the liberty of speaking for me when he attributes the statement “all states have a right to exist.” to me. I never said that and I don’t believe it. He seems to be taking the liberty of speaking for the state of Israel when he says “The current state of Israel does NOT recognize this obligation [to guarantee and protect these rights of all of people subject to its sovereignty].” Perhaps he used the phrase “people subject to its sovereignty” rather than the more obvious “its citizens” because he was trying to include Palestinians who live in Judea, Samaria or Gaza. While I can’t speak for the Israeli government any more than Mr. Ben-Baruch can, I am confident that their position is that they do have an obligation to guarantee and protect the rights of all Israeli citizens (whether they be Jews, Muslims, Christians, or anything else) and they protect those rights very well. Hamas claims sovereignty over the people living in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority claims sovereignty over over Area A (where the vast majority of Palestinians live). Those people have very difficult lives and have clearly been mistreated by their leaders. The fact that Palestinian leaders badly mistreat Palestinians is indeed unfortunate. However it is an issue to be taken up with Palestinians and their leaders, not with Israel.

  2. David Rosenberg

    Were the four resolutions mentioned in Brant Rosen’s posting (above) there from the beginning? If not, when and by whom were the inserted?

    In addition to passing this resolution to divest from three American companies, has the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed any resolutions opposing incitement to terrorism by Palestinians, Jew-hatred by Palestinians, attacks on innocent Israeli citizens, or Hamas’s charter stating that they will never accept a Jewish state in any borders and that their “obligation” is to kill all Jews everywhere?

    1. David Todtman

      Simply: I condemn all Expressions of hatred against Jews. I condemn violence against Jews. I condemn violence by Palestinians against Jews and any Israeli. All violence is condemned, by me. For those reasons, I fully support BDS.

      Are you willing to condemn violence by thegovernment of Israel against Palestinians? Do you condemn Israeli settlers when they are violent against Palestinians?

      Is the dignity of a Palestinian worth as much in your eyes as that of a Jew?

      I am sincere in asking these questions.

      1. David Rosenberg

        David Todtman: Thank you for your reply.

        I accept that your statements and questions are sincere. I will try to answer your questions.

        I, too, condemn all expressions of hatred against anyone. You write “All violence is condemned, by me.” How do you feel when someone is using violence against you or a loved one? In addition to condemning his violence, would you merely ask him to stop, or would you violently intervene to protect the life of your spouse or child who was being violently murdered or tortured? This is also a sincere question, because I want to understand whether your position is that you wouldn’t ever use violence against anyone in any circumstances, or you agree with me in subscribing to non-violence, but being willing to use violence for self-defense when that is the last resort available to prevent being murdered. As you can tell from what I’ve just written, I condemn violence by anyone against anyone, except as a measure of self-defense when one’s own life or the life of someone one has the responsibility to protect is in immanent danger.

        You mention BDS. The purpose and intention of the BDS movement is delegitimize (and hence destroy) the Jewish state of Israel. That is a despicable goal and hence I am completely opposed to BDS.

        You ask “Are you willing to condemn violence by the government of Israel against Palestinians?” The only violence that I would condone is the minimum necessary for self defense. I condemn all violence (by individuals or governments) that goes beyond the minimum required for self defense. You ask “Do you condemn Israeli settlers when they are violent against Palestinians?” I believe I understand the intent of your question. I dispute the terminology of calling Israelis living in the disputed territories “settlers”, but I’ll put that aside because I don’t think that that was your point. I condemn anyone (Israeli “settlers”, Palestinian “settlers”, or anyone else) who uses violence except as a last resort in self-defense.

        You ask “Is the dignity of a Palestinian worth as much in your eyes as that of a Jew?” Of course. And if everybody, especially the Arabs, shared my (our?) belief in the sanctity of life and respect for everyone’s dignity, we wouldn’t have a middle-east conflict.

        Thank you for your willingness to participate in a civil, respectful discussion.

    2. Steve Lindsley

      As a PCUSA pastor who followed the General Assembly proceedings closely, I can say that the four resolutions language was, in fact, in the overall resolution when it was brought to the floor. In other words, this was not inserted as an afterthought. I also believe this language serves to address and answer your other points. As a denomination we are very much for peace and against any ongoing acts of violence and terrorism.

  3. Lois Dickason

    Thank you for your remarks. I copy my letter to Rabbi Michael Lerner as soon as I heard about this courageous vote by PCUSA. Her is the letter I wrote:

    Rabbi Michael Lerner,

    Thank Heaven for this vote by the Presbyterians supporting divestment of three companies, including Caterpillar that sells Israel the machines that both build the settlements and tear down Palestinian homes! Peace through justice is always right. Thanks for sharing this news – your e-mail is the first conveyor of this good news to reach me. I will indeed celebrate.

    As you know, this is not a matter of Jews losing out. In fact the Occupation is hurting Israel’s image as a refuge for the oppressed and the most eloquent voices have been Jewish advocating for an end to settlements, the wall and the occupation. You, Rabbi Lerner and Tikkun, Phyllis Bennis, Mark Braverman, Anna Baltzer, B’et Selem, ICAHD and Jeff Halper, and so many more – I could go on and on – are the Jews who understand that God is on the side of human rights for every person on the face of the earth. This is a victory for human rights everywhere.

    I love the fact that Jewish Voices for Peace circulated throughout the General Assemby with their message supporting BDS on their black shirts. I stand with Women in Black, the organization started in 1989 by Israeli women who declared “We refuse to be enemies with our Palestinian sisters!” We hold up signs in Kalamazoo, Michigan that say, “Women in Black Mourn All Victims of War and Occupation”. In June 2007 I went to Israel/Palestine with a Christian PeaceMaker Team delegation and had the honor of standing with Women in Black in Jerusalem. They continue to stand every Friday at noon in a main square – earlier they were spat on where they stood, so they chose a place where it was harder for people to spit at them, but Gila Svirsky and many of the other women who started Women in Black in 1989 were still standing and they will continue until the Occupation is over. Their large white letters, on Black signs in the shape of a hand, say in Hebrew, Arabic and English, “STOP THE OCCUPATION”.

    Bless you, bless us, bless the world – Tikkun indeed!

    Lois Dickason

  4. Dan Solomon

    This is in response to David Rosenberg’s comment above were he writes:

    ” The purpose and intention of the BDS movement is delegitimize (and hence destroy) the Jewish state of Israel. That is a despicable goal and hence I am completely opposed to BDS.”

    Personally I have mixed feelings on the BDS movement. However I don’t see it as an attempt to “delegitimize (and hence destroy)” Israel.

    The problem as I see it is this – The Palestinians have a number of grievances against the state of Israel. However they have few legitimate means for “redress” of these grievances. They are under military occupation so their options are limited. They don’t get representation in the Israeli Parliament for example. So what are their options? One option is to use terrorism which we all condemn. In fact one complaint that is often expressed is why don’t the Palestinians organize a non-violent protest movement along the lines of Martin Luther King or Ghandi. That is what the BDS movement is. It is a non-violent protest movement. It is a perfectly legitimate way for an oppressed people to protest their situation.

  5. Chris Highland

    Shalom, salaam, peace. . .is very hard, very hard. Like the land, and the head sometimes! As a former Presbyterian Minister, Interfaith Chaplain and now Freethinker. . .the voices of reason are most welcome, like fresh water. Thank you.

  6. Geoffrey Riggs

    As a Presbyterian, I understand the reasons why this divestment measure was voted up. I also feel it’s probable that those voting it up were not acting upon “deep animus” against “both the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” Instead, they voted by applying (in their view) a sincere principle of alleviating suffering to whatever extent possible when not right there in the troubled region.

    I’ve even spoken to some fellow Presbyterians who both favor the vote and who also feel that the newest settlements in the West Bank have now effectively rendered any possible two-state solution highly improbable, now that any proposed Palestinian state would look like “Swiss cheese” (their words). This latter sentiment does indeed align with the earliest foundations of the divestment movement in the rest of the world, if not with this current measure’s reaffirmation of the two-state solution. Plainly, this sentiment did not prevent those feeling this way from voting for the Presbyterian divestment measure anyway, strictly for its hoped-for efficacy in changing Israeli policy.

    Personally, I’m not as sanguine as Rabbi Rosen when it comes to this vote. I’m troubled by it, not because I distrust the motives of fellow Presbyterians and not even because I disagree with the contention that a two-state solution is harder now than ever (I agree it would be much harder now than previously). Rather, I’m troubled by it because, globally, it will be perceived as an aligning of the Presbyterian Church with the original international promulgators for divestment since the turn of this century, whatever this current measure’s “fine print”. Those original promulgators indeed expressed a hostile animus against Israel as a Jewish state. Their predominantly one-state solution, when pressed, ignored the claims of any people’s right to self-determination entirely. That’s where all variations of this divestment idea ultimately come from, and I don’t feel confident that any later good intentions on our part can really live down this troubling “DNA”, either in the perceptions of others, or for real. (Personally, I still hold out some hope for a humane and effective two-state solution, even though I acknowledge the newer hurdles.)

    Now, there’s no question the personal doubts expressed to me, concerning the recent hurdles placed in the way of a viable two-state solution, were framed in a context of genuine concern that both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis should be ensured the right of self-determination in some way. However, the initial hostility reflected in the original promulgation for divestment still trumps these laudable feelings, in my view — unfortunately.

    Looking down the road, I also don’t see that measures like this can ratchet up the pressures equally for both sides there to come closer to a genuine peace settlement. Instead, it just seems to ratchet up further mutual hostility. In addition, measures like this may only heighten perceptions of hostility on either side of the philosophical and religious divide right here at home. It doesn’t have to, of course, and given the good intentions of those I spoke to, it needn’t. But I fear it may all the same. Ultimately, this strikes me as a naive acceptance of a juggernaut whose origins remain highly questionable, ethically.

    Rabbi Rosen sincerely feels that this may occasion some breaking of the deadlock now seen over there. I wish he were right. I hope he is right. But I fear he isn’t — and I hope I’m wrong.

  7. Chris Highland

    Let me also humbly submit (in the midst of all the hubbub over this endless issue) that I live in the Bay Area; Israel is approximately the size of the greater Bay Area; therefore, the area causing so much agitation is a postage stamp on the planet. My point: there’s a lot more “holy land” to be concerned about. Hot issues somewhere else are, to me, like Theology, one big distraction. Aren’t there enough local issues to address, faith or no faith? What if we simply concerned ourselves with our own patch of earth first, then move on to help elsewhere, if it truly helps? Besides, what one small denomination decides does not a world turn.


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