Presbyterians’ Divestment Proposal Stirs BDS Battle

Israel-BDS-Presbyterian

by Mitchell Plitnick

On June 14, members of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) will gather in Detroit, Michigan for their biennial General Assembly meeting. A lot of eyes will be focused on this gathering, particularly those who have managed to maintain interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict in the wake of the collapse of the “peace process.”

The Presbyterians are going to revisit a vote on divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation that failed in 2012 by a mere two votes. Given that narrow margin of victory (the final tally was 333-331 with two abstentions), many believe it might just pass this time. As a result, pro-divestment groups have reinvigorated their efforts to support Presbyterian divestment, while opponents have redoubled their efforts to oppose the resolution.

Leading the charge against the PCUSA’s proposal is none other than the ostensibly pro-peace J Street. One can find, even in the Jewish weekly, The Forward, opinions on the absurdity of J Street’s stance. But the opposition of even so centrist a group to the proposal sheds light on efforts to oppose any and all efforts to exert material pressure on Israel to change its policies.

The arguments against the PCUSA’s divestment proposal begin with opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). That movement is a very broad one, and it includes strident anti-Zionists and one-staters as well as Zionists and two-staters. In general, it is fair to say that the only common thread that unites them all is the notion that the most focused effort right now must be directed at changing Israeli policy, and that to do so, economic and political pressure must be exerted.

I agree with that notion; indeed, I have been arguing that the Palestinians have ample material reason to make great compromises — while Israel does not — for over fifteen years, and that economic measures are the best way for citizens of other countries to bring that pressure to bear. Personally, I don’t agree with many of the more prominent and visible BDS tactics, such as academic boycotts of Israeli universities and some of the more over-zealous efforts to pressure artists from performing in Israel. My differences on these tactics are based on my own judgment of their efficacy.

But you simply cannot find a more unassailable proposal than the one the PCUSA is bringing forth. Knowingly or not, opposing it can only mean one thing: supporting the status quo, fighting to maintain the occupation. Of course, that is not J Street’s intention; but it is the outcome of their stance.

The PCUSA will be deciding whether or not to divest from three well-known corporations — Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard (HP) — due to the fact that their business with Israel helps support the occupation. Motorola sells advanced communications technology to the Israeli military, which are routinely and specifically used in the Occupied Territories. HP “…manages all Information Technology (IT) including its operational communications, logistics and planning including the ongoing naval blockade of the Gaza Strip,” and also provides scanning equipment used by the Israeli military specifically at checkpoints in the West Bank. Caterpillar has long been a target for divestment because it sells Israel a great deal of heavy equipment, some of it customized, that is used to both build settlements and destroy Palestinian homes.

It is perfectly legitimate for the PCUSA or any other group to divert their own funds from supporting such practices. Indeed, that is, theoretically, just what is supposed to happen in a free market, open society system. The only way one can possibly equate economic action to oppose, both rhetorically and practically, such business practices is by equating opposition to the occupation with being anti-Israel. That is something that the PCUSA certainly does not wish to be. The Presbyterians are grappling internally with something that should not be a contradiction: being a friend to Jews and supporting the right of all people to freedom and justice. No Jewish individual or organization should be telling them that a decision to take their money out of international corporations that are profiting from Israel’s occupation is somehow anti-Israel.

The arguments against the Presbyterians action are, sadly, quite duplicitous. First, they collapse all economic actions against the occupation or against Israel as a whole into one category and then claim, without basis, that one particular strand of BDS activists represents all of them and, by extension, taints any economic action against the occupation. Such arguments fail a basic test of avoiding fallacious thinking, but they are, without a doubt, persuasive, especially on emotional issues.

At a recent J Street summit, the group’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, echoed such a view, albeit in a more subtle fashion. “Some will say that you have to go toward the path of BDS…and negative punishment that raises the cost, that drives home that this [continued Israeli occupation] is a path that has consequences,” Ben-Ami said. “That’s not the path for J Street. That’s never going to be the path that we go down. We believe that there’s a better way to talk to friends and family than to wield the big stick and bash people over the head. We have to talk with them out of love and out of concern, and we have to bring our message in a way that will really resonate.”

But in fact, the PCUSA proposal does not punish Israel in any way. Far from “bashing” anyone over the head, it is a way of removing one’s own support from abhorrent practices. None of the business activities that the PCUSA objects to have anything to do with Israeli security; they all have to do with maintaining the occupation and the concomitant, daily human rights violations endured by the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. The PCUSA is saying that they will take their investments elsewhere after a decade of trying to convince these corporations to stop doing this sort of business. One must emphasize, again, that the Presbyterians did not at any time implore these or any other corporations to stop or to limit the business they do with Israel that does not support the occupation.

Only by defining, as many supporters of the status quo do, the ongoing occupation as an Israeli security measure, and thereby excusing it and blaming the Palestinians for their own lack of freedom and rights can one justify opposing the PCUSA’s measures. To be sure, there is no shortage of Jewish or Christian groups who do just that (the Orwellian-named “Presbyterians for Middle East Peace” is a shameful example of the latter). But J Street is supposed to be different. They are supposed to see the occupation as a detriment to Israel’s security and not a boon; they are supposed to see it as a threat to Israel’s future.

I’ve said before that I’ve known Jeremy Ben-Ami and many other people involved deeply with J Street for many years. I know they are not intentionally acting against peace and against Palestinian rights. But they are attempting to square a circle that cannot be bent in that direction by trying to both shield Israel from the consequences of its 47-year old occupation and, at the same time, pressing to end the occupation with nothing more than words.

It doesn’t work that way. Indeed, Ben-Ami and J Street are actually putting forth the very dangerous notion that somehow Israel is different from any other country. Governments don’t make decisions from a sense of morality or ethics; they make concessions or take risks because of pressure, whether that pressure is internal or external, military or economic, political or diplomatic. That is as true for Israel as it is for the United States, Russia, China, Zimbabwe, Luxembourg, Uganda, Chile or any other government, democratic or dictatorial. To pretend otherwise is unrealistic and counter-productive.

If one wants to see a future where Israeli Jews live in peace and security, the occupation must end. But Israelis, both the leaders and the public, are (in some ways, understandably) reluctant to make anything close to the necessary concessions and agreements. Only pressure will change the stance of the Israeli government, as is the case with any government. Opposing such pressure means supporting the occupation. J Street doesn’t mean to do that, but it is what they will be doing at the PCUSA’s General Assembly. The chance for some kind of peace lies in the hope that enough of the Presbyterians at the GA can understand that.

UPDATE: By way of follow-up, and to address in one place a number of the responses to this piece and to the PCUSA resolution more generally, I take on some of the objections raised by people who oppose the resolution here.

Photo: Activists from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) demonstrated last year (June 28-July 3) at the Presbyterian Church (USA) GA in Pittsburgh. Credit: Rae Abileah

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He is the former director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and was previously the director of education and policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. He is a widely published and respected policy analyst. Born in New York City, raised an Orthodox Jew and educated in Yeshiva, Mitchell grew up in an extremist environment that passionately supported the radical Israeli settler movement. His writing has appeared in the Jordan Times, Israel Insider, UN Observer, Middle East Report, Global Dialogue, San Francisco Chronicle, Die Blaetter Fuer Deutsche Und Internationale Politik, Outlook, and in a regular column for a time in Tikkun Magazine. He has been interviewed by various outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor and CNBC Asia. Plitnick graduated with honors from UC Berkeley in Middle Eastern Studies and wrote his thesis on Israeli and Jewish historiography and earned his Masters Degree from the University of Maryland, College Park's School of Public Policy.

9 Comments

  1. Consistent with Fred Taylor’s remark, I will go along with BDS as to Israel, so long as BDS applied to any one of dozens of countries which have horrendous — by any rational measure — social policy e.g. Saudi Arabian oil, Japanese racism toward Koreans…you get the idea.

    Yes, I agree that the occupation is wrong, stupid, should be changed. But BDS against Israel is not about helping Palestinians; it is about attacking Israel.

  2. Btw, why is Israel only country subject to BDS?
    Surely there are plenty of countries which could/should be pressured to change policies. It’s not plausible that Israel is the only one which “deserves” such attention.

    That, by itself, is why I am against BDS and so I deliberately search out products to purchase which are on the anti-Israel list e.g. Sabra Hummus.

  3. I agree that in a free society and free market all have (or should have) the right to support or boycott as they desire. Also, I’m sure that all serious people support the long-term objective of a fair and reasonable peace for all concerned living in the area.

    However, getting away from the politics for a moment, I would suggest that if one is going to boycott Israel economically that they do so with some consistency rather than just to pick and choose. In this regard, I’d suggest that all those who choose to boycott also boycott utilization of drugs and medical treatments originated or invented in Israel as that benefits the Israeli’s economically. Also, don’t use any of the software or electronics invented or manufactured in Israel. The same for agricultural techniques and services. Protest the use of Israeli technology by our (U.S.) armed forces because that also benefits the Israeli economy. I obviously can go on to many other areas and sectors.

    If you’re really going to boycott, which is perfectly alright by me, then you really ought to be willing to “suffer” for the cause/objective and go all the way rather than just selectively choosing those where you don’t really have any skin in the game!

  4. I wonder if you believe “understandable” reluctance, why do you suggest change? What is “understandable”? Sheer inertia? Devil you know, devil you don’t know?

    You write:

    “But Israelis, both the leaders and the public, are (in some ways, understandably) reluctant to make anything close to the necessary concessions and agreements…”

  5. My own sense is that the better solution would be to divest everything in the offending company except a de minimis stock holding, e.g., retaining ownership of one share per company on the list. This would be consistent with the goals of divestment, yet still enable the Presbyterian Church to introduce SH resolutions and amendments, and otherwise weigh in at shareholder meetings, without being excluded as a party without standing or an interest.

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