**UPDATE: The PCUSA has voted in favor of divestment**
Today, the Presbyterian General Assembly will vote on whether it should divest its holdings in three companies: Caterpillar, Motorola, and HP. These three companies produce military technologies integral to maintaining Israel’s occupation. Of course, because we are talking about Israel, there has to be an overheated public debate. Many Presbyterian leaders fear that divestment will alienate the Jewish community and associate the Church with the long, nefarious history anti-Jewish persecution in Christian Europe. I can appreciate where they are coming from. Like them, I also care tremendously about combating antisemitism. I have a personal stake in making the world a safe place for Jews. But investment in these military companies, especially their complicity in clear violations of Palestinian human rights, does not achieve this goal. So, I have a novel suggestion for the Presbyterian Church on this important day: fight antisemitism while you divest.
The Presbyterian vote comes after a decade of debate on the topic within the church. An interfaith coalition of groups, representing Christians, Muslims and Jews, argues that divesting from the companies would place an obstacle into the infrastructure of Israel’s occupation, which continues and expands its reach over Palestinian lives as the peace process fails over and over again. If the Presbyterian Church is truly committed to peace in the Middle East as it claims to be, the argument goes, it would renounce investment in those companies profiteering from the ongoing violence and repression there. To paraphrase one excellent slogan, it is impossible to talk about peace while investing in violence.
So, what should a conscientious Presbyterian, who cares both about Palestinian suffering and about the history of anti-Jewish oppression do when presented with this dilemma?
The first step comes from differentiating what happened back then from what is happening now. Divesting from three military technology companies complicit in human rights violations has no relationship whatsoever to the historical Christian persecution of Jews. The resolution does not demand that Jews convert to Christianity or face torture. The resolution does not claim that Jews cannot be trusted or are conspiring to take over the world. The resolution does not target Jews collectively at all, but rather addresses specific violations of Palestinian human rights from which the Church does not want to profit. Caterpillar’s notorious D-9 bulldozers have been used to raze thousands of Palestinian homes, many of them the homes of Christian Palestinians. Motorola and HP both supply equipment used to administer Israel’s checkpoints and control over Palestinian movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In fact, 75% of HP’s products have military uses, despite the company’s warm and fuzzy image for producing standard office equipment and back to school electronics. The objective of divestment, despite assertions to the contrary, is to stop the profiteering from Palestinian suffering, not to ostracize Jews.
Some Jewish critics claim that this divestment can be analogized to a “boycott of Jews” because Israel’s activities are “singled out,” but this argument makes no sense. The Presbyterian Church has taken steps to divest from human rights violations and other violence around the world, including from apartheid South Africa. Also, many of these same Jewish critics support an end to the occupation and the implementation of a two-state solution, because they believe it benefits Jews and Israelis to do so. Divesting from military companies that strengthen occupation and further entrench Israel’s hold over the West Bank helps the objectives they claim to support. Divesting would bring them one step closer to their goal, or at least bolster their position in the debate by showing credible interfaith support for an end to occupation. If we all agree that Israel’s occupation is part of the problem, why wouldn’t we do what we can to stop it? Why would we continue to invest in the infrastructure that keeps this cycle of violence afloat? Furthermore, the Presbyterian resolution explicitly condemns violence against innocent people, as do all the organizations working to support it.
Second, the Presbyterians should stay committed to eradicating fear and prejudice against Jews and other religious minorities, for that matter. Presbyterians could use this as an opportunity to bolster their commitment to Jewish-Christian relations and make sure antisemitism has no place in the Church going forward. They could delve more deeply into the issues, theological and political, that have divided our communities in the past. They could develop educational programs to teach their young leaders about Christian antisemitism, blood libel, pogroms, and the Nazi Holocaust, and what can be done to keep these terrible events from re-emerging in the future. They could connect the plight of the Jews in Christian Europe to the plight of other oppressed minorities in the world, and perhaps discuss the connection between this history and the current trends toward Islamophobia in Europe. In this way, the Presbyterians and those of us who choose to be their Jewish allies can bring us closer together, proving that boycott and divestment can actually be better tools for positive engagement among people with differences than tiptoeing around injustice to avoid an emotional backlash.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said: “true peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” Both Jews and Palestinians deserve better than the absence of tension; we need the Presbyterians to consciously and lovingly divest from violence.