Why Israel Divestment Proposals Do Not Make Sense




Until recently, I had not spent a lot of time considering the potential negative impact of organized efforts by religious groups to divest their investments in Israel because I didn’t take them seriously.  But ignoring these initiatives is a mistake.

To consider one specific example, I am troubled by the apparently increasing momentum behind the disturbing Israel divestment initiatives taken by the Presbyterian Church in the United States.  The Presbyterian Church is polarizing its own membership as Presbyterians and the larger group of American Protestants are not united behind the notion of divesting from Israel.  We should all pay more attention to the larger implications and messages contained in a divestment policy and speak out against simplistic attempts to influence the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian debacle.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that, while I have great love for Israel, I am not a blind supporter of the Israeli government– in fact, most Israelis would say the same of themselves.  But taking a binary approach to try to influence, much less resolve, the multi-factored problems of this conflict will not deliver positive results.

For example, the Presbyterian effort towards divestment is extremely one sided and does not take into account that by electing Hamas, the Palestinians have in effect elected the Middle East equivalent of David Duke.  Even a surface analysis of the irony here reveals that it makes no sense to take punitive actions only against Israel and not against an elected government dedicated to the killing of innocent Israelis and to the destruction of the state of Israel– for direct evidence of these Hamas positions you can visit the Middle East Media Research Institute www.memri.org and search under "hamas".

The Presbyterian divestment proposal also comes at a time when Israelis have successfully disengaged from Gaza and are planning additional disengagements– this time from the West Bank under the leadership of newly elected Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert and the Kadima party.  How can it be sensible to take punitive actions against Israel at the very time when Israel is unilaterally making concessions toward peace?

If the Presbyterians really wished to make a difference, then a far better way to do so would be through a policy of constructive investment in the Palestinian Territories, constructive meaning through private investment and investment in NGO’s doing charitable work there.

The JTA reports that this issue is going to come to the fore again in June at the next Presbyterian General Assembly:

The passion ignited by the divestment resolution at the last General Assembly is likely to erupt again at the June 15-22 meeting in Birmingham, Ala. What happens there will have a lasting impact on the already strained relationship between Jews and the entire Protestant community. The estimated 3 million Presbyterians in the United States influence the other white mainline Protestant churches in this country, whose members number more than 20 million. Presbyterians are considered the “conscience” and reason of the Protestant community, serving as something of a “swing vote,” Rudin said. Indeed, after the Presbyterians’ 2004 resolution on divestment, several other Protestant communities took up the issue. The Methodists decided to study their options; the United Church of Christ, also known as the Congregationalists, endorsed divestment but did not create a process to enact it; the Episcopalians considered but rejected divestment; and the Lutherans rejected a divestment resolution, and instead passed a resolution to invest in cooperative ventures between Israelis and Palestinians. What will happen in Birmingham is anyone’s guess, though both Presbyterian and Jewish officials predict that no immediate action on divestment will be taken.

To read the full article on this topic from the JTA from May 11, 2006, click here .

Below I have re-printed in its entirety a February 2005 letter sent to the Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church by Rabbi Stephen Pearce, the Senior Rabbi of my congregation, and our board President, Mark Schlesinger.  I agree with this letter and hope that more people will follow with similar sentiments.

Dear Reverend Kirkpatrick:

On behalf of the clergy and board of directors of Emanu-El San Francisco, a Reform Jewish congregation of over 2100 families, we welcomed the eloquent remarks you made during the recent National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace (NILIP) press conference held in Washington, DC, on January 13. We hope that the Administration heeds the call from you and the other leaders of the three major faith communities—Muslim, Jewish, and Christian—to bring leadership to the peace process in the Middle East. Whereas our mutual desire for a just peace binds us together, we regret that the Overtures adopted during last summer’s General Assembly, particularly the one calling for selective divestment from companies doing business with Israel, have driven a wedge between the Jewish community and our Presbyterian brothers and sisters.

This rift has widened as a result of recent meetings between Presbyterian delegations from the United States and leaders of Hezbollah, a group that has been officially designated a terrorist organization by our government. Our congregation wishes to add its voice to that of the major national Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the American Jewish Committee, who join with many concerned Presbyterians in expressing disappointment over these policies and practices. We are in agreement with the view that was expressed in a letter to you dated November 29 and signed by several prominent Jewish leaders. We find it troubling that a strategy of economic sanctions is being employed against the democratic state of Israel, while there is no call for divestment from non-democratic countries like Myanmar, North Korea, China, or Iran…nations that are universally acknowledged to have egregious human rights abuses.

The discriminatory fashion in which this policy has been implemented fails to hold Palestinian Authority officials accountable for their role in facilitating terrorism. The Church’s efforts to help broker a peaceful and lasting settlement of the conflict are further undermined by its sanctioning of meetings with groups like Hezbollah, and by its delegates to those meetings offering praise to an organization widely associated with acts of murderous violence and hateful anti-Semitic propaganda. We applaud the willingness shown by you and other national Church leaders to participate in last fall’s meeting with leaders of our community to discuss these developments and their negative impact on interfaith relations. It is our hope that this dialogue will continue.

Those of us at Congregation Emanu-El will do what we can to encourage similar discussions on the local level, in the interest of repairing relations between us and advancing our shared goal of an equitable peace in the Middle East.

Cordially,

Rabbi Stephen Pearce, Senior Rabbi

Mark Schlesinger, President

Re-reading this letter in May of 2006, I believe that the subsequent empowerment of Hamas in the machinery of the Palestinian governing body and its repeated restatement of intolerance towards the very existence of the Jewish State should bring pause to Israel divestment programs. 

Recognizing that everyone has their own side of the story to tell, we should not lose sight of basic principles of human rights and maintain a more balanced and constructive approach to deal with the tragedy that continues to play in Israel.

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