The Israel Divestment Debate

The Israel Divestment Debate

Traditional bonds between Jews and mainline Christians are strained as a concern for Palestinian rights spurs churches to consider divesting from Israeli companies.


This past September, ten days after the last Israeli soldier left the Gaza Strip as part of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, an unusual meeting took place in East Jerusalem. Seventeen representatives from various American Jewish organizations and from several American Protestant denominations filed in to the headquarters of Sabeel–a Palestinian “liberation theology center” headed by Palestinian Christian activist Rev. Naim Ateek, whose activities had become a source of intense controversy among his guests. Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor of the Anti-Defamation League confronted Ateek on his position that he did not accept Israel’s right to exist. Ateek refused to repudiate it, quoting an Israeli writer’s statement that if the Jewish people had a right to a homeland it should be in Germany, not Palestine. Bretton-Granatoor and other Jewish leaders pressed Ateek on his writings, accusing him of anti-Semitism in speaking of the Israeli government as “Herods” and of its “crucifixion” of Palestinians. Ateek brushed the suggestion aside, claiming that his use of biblical imagery in the struggle against oppression was justified. As the debate grew more heated, the American Christian leaders remained silent, watching Ateek and their Jewish counterparts trade accusations.

The contentious meeting at Sabeel was the last stop on a trip to Israel and Palestine intended to mend fences between American Jews and mainstream Protestant denominations. The trip came after more than a year of hostility between the traditional communal allies over an increasingly activist pro-Palestinian stance among mainline Christians, and particularly over their moves toward divestment from companies profiting from the occupation of the Palestinian territories captured by Israel in 1967. The controversy began in July 2004, when the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to adopt a policy of divestment from such companies and other companies doing business with Israel, prompting outrage from the mainstream Jewish community. By the time of the interfaith trip, the United Church of Christ (UCC) had adopted a similar policy and the Episcopal, Methodist and Lutheran denominations were seriously considering doing the same.

Advocates for Palestinian rights argue that divestment is an effective tool to protest Israel’s policies where previous actions have failed, putting pressure on Israel to end the occupation and move toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict. They feel it is well past time for the churches to take a stand and stop deferring to pro-Israel feelings in the Jewish community. Jewish critics and other supporters of Israel argue that it is a thinly veiled attack on Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state that has no hope of being effective and only creates more hostility. Some leaders of the American Jewish community have even threatened to abandon partnership with mainline Protestants altogether, jeopardizing a longstanding progressive alliance.

America’s mainline Protestant denominations supported Israel’s founding in 1948 and remained supportive of the Jewish state through its early years while building a solid progressive partnership with US Jewish groups on domestic issues such as civil rights and poverty. But since Israel’s capture of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, these denominations have become progressively more critical of the occupation and ever more sympathetic to Palestinian claims.

This shift did not escape the attention of Israel’s government and of US Jewish organizations, which in the early 1970s began cultivating evangelical Christian support for Israel. Informed by an “end time” theology in which Christ’s return, the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment are contingent on an “ingathering of the exiles”–the Jewish people–to biblical Israel, the increasingly powerful evangelical movement saw the state’s creation and its victory in the 1967 war as fulfillments of prophecy. For Israel and its US Jewish supporters, these “Christian Zionists” quickly became an attractive alternative to mainline denominations.

With the collapse of the peace process in 2000, evangelicals and American Jewish groups rushed to defend Israel’s efforts to suppress the second intifada. Even American Jewish groups that had long fought the Christian right on domestic issues, such as the Anti-Defamation League, eagerly embraced Christian Zionists. As Israel faced its “greatest crisis in years,” ADL director Abe Foxman declared, “American Jews should not be apologetic or defensive about cultivating Evangelical support.”

As anger at Israeli military incursions and settlement-building grew, however, the conflict produced an upsurge in pro-Palestinian activism as well. From its headquarters in Geneva, the World Council of Churches (WCC), an ecumenical body to which all American mainline denominations belong, launched a campaign dedicated to putting “an end to the occupation as a means of addressing the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Central to the campaign is the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), which recruits church members to “accompany Palestinians and Israelis in non-violent actions and concerted advocacy efforts to end the occupation.”

Overseen in America by the Lutheran Church, EAPPI has sent a steady stream of volunteers to witness the brutalities and humiliations of Israeli occupation. These volunteers have built relationships with Jewish anti-occupation groups like Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and with Palestinian Christian organizations like Sabeel. Links like these led the Presbyterian Church’s general assembly to pass, with overwhelming support, the July 2004 resolution identifying Israel’s occupation as “the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict” and calling for a policy of “phased selective divestment” from companies that do business in Israel. It also passed resolutions to “actively oppose Christian Zionism” and condemning Israel’s construction of its separation wall.

The response from Jewish groups was swift and furious. The ADL said the move was “offensive and distressing,” and B’nai B’rith denounced it as “hostile, aggressive, and profoundly insulting,” calling for an end to interfaith dialogue. Rabbis for Human Rights–a participant in EAPPI that has engaged in civil disobedience to prevent Israeli authorities from demolishing Palestinian homes and orchards–excoriated the Presbyterians for singling out Israel while ignoring “the homicidal ideologies that have so sadly taken hold among some of our Palestinian neighbors” and the “attempts to destroy our country that transcend the Occupation and precede it by decades.”

Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, America’s largest Jewish peace groups, rejected divestment as counterproductive, and leaders of the Reform movement–the largest American Jewish denomination, with approximately 1.5 million members and a stalwart progressive constituency–requested a face-to-face meeting with Presbyterian leaders to discuss their differences. “It was just this past June that you met with Colin Powell along with [Reform leaders] to discuss real actions that the U.S. should be taking to support peace,” protested Union for Reform Judaism president Eric Yoffie. “That spirit of cooperation is now put into question.”

Reeling from the backlash, Presbyterian leaders sought to cast the divestment action in more conciliatory terms, but this did little to mollify critics. By the time the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief ecclesiastical officer of the PC(USA)’s general assembly, met with Jewish leaders that September, his office had received protests from fourteen House members and six senators urging him to overturn the divestment decision, which they argued only encouraged those who sought to delegitimize the Jewish state. “It is the occupation, not our move to consider divestment, that threatens the existence of Israel,” Kirkpatrick retorted. The meeting with Jewish leaders produced little agreement.

“What we saw emerge very dramatically following the divestment decision of the Presbyterians is a certain mentality that says the occupation is the root of all evil,” says Yoffie. “We just don’t agree with that.” More fundamentally, says Yoffie, that mindset often minimizes terrorism. “They are very quick to use the word ‘evil’ when they apply it to the occupation, but they didn’t apply the word ‘evil’ to terror…. There’s simply no moral calculus that could reasonably lead to that conclusion.”

Shortly afterward, the Episcopal Church moved closer to adopting divestment, announcing that its Social Responsibility Investment Committee would study whether investments are “appropriate with companies that contribute to the ongoing [Israeli] Occupation.” At the same time, PC(USA)’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee published divestment guidelines but again took pains to present the policy as evenhanded. While the original resolution called for phased selective divestment from companies doing business in Israel, the guidelines now only targeted companies that profited from Israel’s occupation, adding the category of corporations that aided Israeli or Palestinian organizations “that support or facilitate violent acts against innocent civilians.”

In October, however, during a fact-finding trip to the Middle East, the Presbyterian Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which drafted the divestment resolution, met with Sheik Nabil Kaouk, a leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the State Department. “We treasure the precious words of Hezbollah,” Presbyterian elder Ron Stone told his hosts during the meeting, which was broadcast on Hezbollah’s Al Manar satellite television network. “According to my recent experience,” added Stone, “relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.” In the face of an outcry from Jewish groups, the Presbyterian leadership quickly disavowed the meeting and Stone’s comments. The Advisory Committee’s coordinator was subsequently fired.

This controversy aside, however, some American Jews support divestment. “It’s about time that these Christian organizations came on board,” says Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which strongly endorses the divestment campaign. The Presbyterians, says Surasky, broke an “unwritten rule.” “They are allowed to issue statements that are critical of the Israeli government, but they’re not allowed to actually do something.”

What effect divestment will have, however, is unclear. Mainline leaders concede that they do not own enough stock to leverage corporations or Israel into changing policies. “We don’t have the millions of people to make a profound economic impact,” says Surasky. “Our goal is education of both American Jews and Christians…. Because of [the Presbyterian] action and the resulting backlash, you’re seeing panels at churches and soul-searching on an unprecedented level.” But while some Jewish organizations like JVP and Jews Against the Occupation support divestment, Yoffie says they are “fringe groups” and says “there are no legitimate mainstream Jewish groups that support the divestment effort.” Indeed, a United Church of Christ briefing paper conceded that pro-divestment Jewish groups were not representative of the mainstream Jewish community.

For Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and an American-born Israeli Jew, that’s precisely the problem. Even liberal Jews like Yoffie and groups like Americans for Peace Now are obstacles to peace, he says. “Both the liberals and the super-pro-Israel people see themselves as the gatekeepers of Israel. They resist criticism of Israel and of course criticism from Christians, even progressive Christians…. Liberal Jews are critical of Israel in a general way, but when it comes to taking a real stand, for example with divestment–saying, ‘Look, this occupation is evil’–they tend not to go there.”

“There” would mean accepting the assertion that Israel’s occupation is primarily responsible for the conflict and therefore the major obstacle to peace, and that America enables Israel’s intransigence. “For thirty years the Presbyterian Church has been asking Israel to stop settlements and appealing to the US government to put curbs on Israel. There’s been zero change,” says Presbyterian Donald Wagner, executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University in Chicago and a prominent advocate for divestment. “It’s time to say that we are not going to benefit from another people’s suffering.” Divestment may not prevent Caterpillar from selling bulldozers to Israel or hurt the country’s economy, proponents concede, but it might mobilize outrage against Israel’s actions, leading to pressure to end the occupation. “Sanctions on South Africa created a moral environment in which apartheid got so delegitimized that companies didn’t want to be associated with it,” says Halper. “That’s the way I think Christians can have an influence. You can delegitimize the occupation to a point where it would have to change, where Israel is so isolated it’ll become a pariah.”

Jewish Voice for Peace hailed the Presbyterian divestment decision as “the first in what may soon be a torrent of church-based activism.” Indeed, in February 2005 the WCC commended PC(USA) and encouraged member churches to adopt similar measures. That same month, the UCC published a draft resolution for a “process of divestment from companies involved with Israel’s illegal occupations of the West Bank and Gaza, the building of the ‘security fence,’ and the Israeli settlements within Palestinian Territory.” And in June the New England and Virginia Conferences of the United Methodist Church voted to urge their denomination to do the same.

In spring 2005 Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon summoned officials from several US Jewish organizations to express his concern. “The Israelis wanted to know what the Americans were doing and whether they could ‘control’ the divestment threat,” says Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Congress. After a furious round of lobbying, Jewish leaders convinced UCC officials not to recommend divestment to its synod floor. And yet at the July synod, the UCC approved a resolution to “use economic leverage, including…divesting from those companies that refuse to change their practices of gain from the perpetuation of violence, including the Occupation.” Several Jewish groups said they were abandoning dialogue for a more confrontational approach, charging that the mainline had been co-opted by groups like Sabeel and swearing to expose how Sabeel’s message conflicts with the mainline groups’ stated commitment to a two-state solution. Mainline leaders are “trying to accommodate this deeply anti-Zionist theology with their fine American position that they support the right of Israel to exist in safety and security,” says Korn. “You cannot square the circle.” Sabeel’s “Principles for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel” does state that “the ideal and best solution has always been to envisage ultimately a bi-national state in Palestine-Israel.” PC(USA) Middle East liaison Victor Makari shares this vision, telling the Jerusalem Report that his “preferred solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a shared democratic state.”

Divestment proponents say that for Jewish leaders to cry foul over alliances with Palestinian Christians who allegedly reject Israel’s legitimacy and a two-state solution is hypocritical, given their own alliance with Christian Zionists who reject the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to any part of what they consider Jewish land. “The institutional alliances with groups both Jewish and Christian, from the Zionist Organization of America to Pat Robertson, that reject out of hand the right of Palestinians to have their own state, are simply never questioned,” says Surasky.

Indeed, evangelicals have supplied much of the firepower against divestment. The controversy over the UCC’s actions marked the first time that Christian Zionists came into direct confrontation with their mainline brethren over Israel. Soon after the UCC’s draft resolutions were published, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, through its Stand for Israel project (co-founded by former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed), launched a petition drive urging their rejection. The fellowship, which is primarily supported by evangelical Christians, also launched a broader “Stop Divestment” movement, boasting of thousands of signatures collected for petitions directed at mainline denominations and of 20,000 faxes sent to George W. Bush countering “anti-Israel” lobbying by mainline groups.

The anti-divestment campaign intensified last August when PC(USA)’s MRTI committee published its list of targets for possible divestment. All save one were companies allegedly aiding Israel’s military occupation, including Caterpillar and Motorola (the exception was Citigroup, which it was claimed had provided money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers through an investment fund). Stand for Israel quickly joined the American Jewish Congress in calling for investment in the target companies. The AJCongress even bought stock in Caterpillar so as to oppose a shareholder resolution brought by JVP and PC(USA) urging the company to cease supplying the Israel Defense Forces with bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes. The resolution was overwhelmingly defeated.

On August 11 Reform Judaism leader Eric Yoffie addressed the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s assembly. Yoffie acknowledged the pain of Palestinians and reaffirmed his commitment to a two-state solution but implored Christians not to disregard the impact of terror or to blame Israel alone for the conflict. He received a standing ovation from the delegates, who adopted a “Peace Not Walls” policy aimed at raising awareness of the separation barrier’s impact on Palestinians, but endorsing “constructive investment” through such initiatives as loans to Palestinian businesses rather than divestment. In October the Episcopal Church decided to “engage in dialogue with and, where appropriate, to file shareholder resolutions” with companies that operate in the occupied territories and “whose products or services contribute to violence against either side, or contribute to the infrastructure that supports and sustains the Occupation,” but stressed that it was not endorsing divestment.

Jewish groups welcomed the Episcopal and Lutheran decisions. The ADL credited its efforts and those of other Jewish organizations to engage mainline leaders in dialogue aimed at preventing the use of economic sanctions against Israel. Ethan Felson, assistant director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, told The Jewish Week that the Episcopalian decision was a “turning point” that would make it easier to derail similar proposals. Korn credits the apparent rejection of divestment to the September interfaith trip, including the meeting at Sabeel. “[Mainline leaders] saw for the first time that the conflict is not black and white, and they can’t simply blame Israel for everything,” he says. Israel’s Gaza disengagement in August may also have helped to stall the momentum for divestment. “It has given Jewish communal organizations a good talking point to say, ‘See, Israel does support peace, they disengaged from Gaza,'” says Surasky. “For those who have superficial knowledge of the issues, it does seem like Israel took a step toward peace.”

In early December the Democratic National Committee unanimously resolved to condemn divestment from Israel, stating, “Efforts to isolate Israel through boycotts or actions that include the possibility of divestment are counterproductive to the search for peace.” Jewish anti-divestment activists had strenuously lobbied DNC chair Howard Dean to take action, and the language was crafted with the help of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“The life cycle of this movement is years, not months,” says Surasky. “It’s laughable for anyone to declare victory at this point.” The Rev. Richard Toll, chair of Friends of Sabeel North America, says that while the Lutheran and Episcopal denominations might seem to have rejected divestment, they have in essence endorsed the movement. “They didn’t use the word ‘divestment’; that’s the trigger word that has gotten people all excited. I’m sure they felt the backlash. But the Episcopal Church has a very similar plan [to that of PC(USA)]…. The Lutherans, all the preachers, are saying the same thing as the Presbyterians–that they don’t think it’s right for anyone to make money off the occupation.”

Indeed, the future of divestment as a tactic is very much an open question. In early February the Church of England’s general synod voted for “morally responsible investment in the Palestinian occupied territories and, in particular, to disinvest from companies profiting from the illegal occupation, such as Caterpillar Inc.” Though not binding on the church’s investment committee, the vote carries tremendous symbolic power and was supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Jewish condemnation was swift, however, and former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey of Clifton announced that he was “ashamed to be an Anglican.”

Prospects for divestment in US churches are still uncertain. The United Methodist Church is “monitoring the situation closely” and may revise its position at its next general conference. And at its next general assembly, in June, the Presbyterian Church will decide whether to retain its own divestment policy, with critics claiming that to do so it would also have to divest from companies doing business with the Palestinian Authority under the newly elected Hamas government. In late February, after heated debate and an embarrassing furor over its officials attending another meeting with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Presbytery of Chicago voted to send an overture to the general assembly urging PC(USA) to invest its assets only in “peaceful pursuits” as they “pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank,” but avoided using the word “divestment.” “As long as the Presbyterians are still carrying the banner, there’s still a threat,” says Rabbi Korn. “But the pushback has been so strong. The Presbyterians are hanging out there by themselves. The others have backed off for moral and pragmatic reasons. They couldn’t deal with the headache.”

But while Jewish leaders may be confident that their efforts to neutralize the divestment campaign have been successful, recent events have exposed the risks and contradictions of the alliance with evangelicals that was instrumental to that success. In January, shortly after Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson provoked outrage by suggesting that Sharon’s predicament was divine retribution for giving up Jewish land. “God has enmity against those who ‘divide my land,'” Robertson explained on his television program, The 700 Club. “I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course.”

The previous month Abe Foxman of the ADL held a summit with the Reform movement’s Eric Yoffie and other Jewish leaders to devise a strategy for confronting the political power of conservative Christian groups, declaring evangelical influence a threat to Jewish life in America. Other Jewish leaders such as Korn have counseled against confrontation for fear that it might threaten the pro-Israel relationship at a time when mainline groups have become so hostile. Some prominent evangelicals have already begun to make veiled threats to this effect. Other threats have not been so veiled. “You know, [Foxman]’s got himself kind of in a bind, because the strongest supporters Israel has are members of the religious right, the people he’s fighting,” the Rev. Donald Wildmon, founder and chairman of the American Family Association–one of the groups Foxman has singled out–told his audience during a December 5 broadcast on AFA-operated American Family Radio. “The more he says that ‘you people are destroying this country,’ you know, some people are going to begin to get fed up with this and say, ‘Well, all right then. If that’s the way you feel, then we just won’t support Israel anymore.'”

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