Divestment is an Investment in Love, Peace, and Justice

22 mins read
Author Robert B. Ross
Author Robert B. Ross

Introduction

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been engaged in a decade-long struggle to divest from companies that are profiting from the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip. After an extensive corporate engagement process, the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) has recommended that the Church divest, in particular, from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard. This recommendation comes in the wake of a thirty-year-old denominational policy that prohibits the Church from investing in non-peaceful corporations. There are numerous PC(USA) precedents to this recommendation, including the Church’s divestment from companies in South Africa during the Apartheid era, Burma in the 1990s, and Sudan in the early 2000s. And PC(USA) has been involved with various education and advocacy initiatives on Israel/Palestine since 1967.

Sharing the Shabbat

The need for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from these three companies became crystal clear to me one beautiful May evening last year in Jerusalem. I was walking from my hotel near the Damascus Gate of the Old City, in East Jerusalem, across the invisible dividing line into West Jerusalem, where I was meeting some friends for the Shabbat meal. This was my first Shabbat in Jerusalem, and I marveled at the peace of streets unencumbered by cars. Every store was closed. Traffic lights were superfluous and didn’t carry with them the usual roar of engines every time they turned green. The train was no longer running. The only sounds I could hear were the footsteps and casual conversations of families walking down the middle of Jaffa Road, on their way to Shabbat meals of their own. I sat on a bench and waited for my friends as the sun set over Jerusalem.

I could see Rachel and Daniel from a distance as they walked slowly toward me, towing behind them a small cart of food and wine. We smiled in the way that old friends do when they haven’t seen each other in quite some time. They gave me warm hugs and I offered them a package of baklava.

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Divestment is an investment in hope for a Holy Land where race, religion, and nationality pose no restrictions. Divestment is an investment in love, peace, and justice prevailing for all.
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I met Rachel in Western Pennsylvania a few years ago, where she grew up, before she moved to Jerusalem. Daniel’s parents had escaped anti-Jewish attacks in Hungary before immigrating to Israel. He was born in Jerusalem and lived in Israel his entire life. He and Rachel had gotten married a month before I arrived.

We walked for nearly an hour to their friends’ apartment, on the other side of West Jerusalem. When we arrived, they exclaimed greetings to Rachel and Daniel and welcomed me as if I were a new member of the family. As we stood around the dinner table, Daniel whispered to me descriptions of each Hebrew prayer as it was sung. Their devotion to God and to one another was beautiful; it filled the room. We ate delicious food, drank some wine, and talked about my impressions of Jerusalem. Someone suggested where in the Old City I could find some scarves and jewelry for my family.

These young Israeli adults were all in their mid to late 20s, and, like many people I know, they worry about finding meaningful and sustainable work. As most of them grew up during the second intifada, they fear the outbreak of renewed violence and warfare. And like most young people, they are eager to travel the world. One woman spoke of her upcoming trip to Stockholm; another talked about her time in New York City. Rachel and Daniel discussed their interest in American graduate schools. Selfishly, I urged them to move closer to me, in Pittsburgh.

Witnessing the Occupation

A week earlier, Rachel had served as my alibi at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I arrived weary from an overnight flight from New York. With my smiling white face and American passport, I greeted the Israeli immigration official with a pleasant, “Shalom.”

“Why are you visiting Israel?” he asked.

“To see the holy sites and visit my friend, Rachel,” I said, just as I had rehearsed.

“What’s is Rachel’s surname? How do you know her?”

“She is a friend from Pennsylvania.”

“And she came to Israel on aliyah?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, even though it was more complicated than I could explain at that moment.

“Welcome to Israel,” he said. And just like that, I was in.

I didn’t tell the border guard that the primary reason for my travel was to visit the Occupied West Bank. Had I done so, he most likely would have deported me or at least detained and questioned me for hours.

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I didn’t tell the border guard that the primary reason for my travel was to visit the Occupied West Bank. Had I done so, he most likely would have deported me or at least detained and questioned me for hours.
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I was participating, along with eleven other American professors, in a faculty development seminar run by a Palestinian-American academic organization. We visited Palestinian universities in Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, Ramallah, and Bethlehem. Part of the purpose of the trip was to introduce us to Palestinian professors so that we could establish professional connections and eventually cooperate on research projects. The seminar was also intended to orient us to the Palestinian West Bank, which has been under Israeli occupation since 1967, so that we could return home and shed light on the very realities of life in Palestine that the Israeli border guard and his government wanted to hide.

Israeli-Only Railroad Photo Credit: Erin Dunigan
Israeli-Only Railroad
Photo Credit: Erin Dunigan

I learned very quickly that the occupation affects every Palestinian’s daily life. Put simply, the Israeli military, which exercises a near total rule over the West Bank, severely limits where Palestinians can live, work, travel, and move. Tariq and Sara, a couple I met at Bethlehem University, for example, were scheduled to get married last summer in Ramallah. Both were Palestinian, but Tariq also had an American passport. When the Israeli authorities discovered their impending marriage, they revoked his Palestinian residency permit and ordered him to leave the country by the end of the month. No reason was given. So, in addition to rerouting their wedding guests, who were planning to arrive from all over the world, they had to decide whether to live together illegally in the West Bank or leave their lives and homes behind for a life abroad.

Anyone of Palestinian origin, regardless of their citizenship, is required to carry an Israeli-issued residency permit at all times while in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Palestinians without such a permit will be arrested whenever they attempt to pass through one of the dozens of Israeli checkpoints both along and even within the borders of the West Bank. My Israeli friends are not subject to this risk and do not need to pass through the checkpoints at all. Furthermore, virtually anyone from anywhere in the world whom the Israeli Ministry of the Interior deems is Jewish can automatically become an Israeli citizen by simply stepping foot in Israel (to be Jewish, according to the Israeli government, one must either be converted by a government-approved Orthodox rabbi or have a mother or grandmother who was Jewish).

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According to the Defense For Children International, there were 183 Palestinian children in Israeli prisons in January 2014, the most recent month for which data are available.
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Palestinians previously arrested by the Israeli military—and this includes nearly ever man I met—will likely be arrested again at the checkpoint and most certainly will not be able to pass. The fiancé of a young university student I met in Nablus named Hind had just been arrested for leading an entirely nonviolent campaign against the continued construction of Israel’s separation barrier. All Palestinians experience significant restrictions to their movement within the West Bank, but arrested and formerly incarcerated Palestinians like this young man are virtually immobilized, prisoners in their own homes. Nearly 5,000 Palestinians are currently in Israeli prisons, including more than 150 under “administrative detention,” meaning they are serving for an indefinite amount of time without charges and without trials. According to the Defense For Children International, there were 183 Palestinian children in Israeli prisons in January 2014, the most recent month for which data are available.

Checkpoint - Erin
Photo Credit: Erin Dunigan

Few Palestinians can ever travel to Jerusalem, much less to the land that is now called Israel, where many Palestinians were born (when it was called Palestine). Many of the people I met showed me their green residency permits, which prohibit them from traveling to Jerusalem or Israel. Those with a blue identity card can live in Jerusalem, but without any of the rights or privileges granted to Israeli citizens. The Israeli government, furthermore, has been systematically revoking these permits on the grounds that Jerusalem no longer serves as the Palestinians’ “center of life.”

I had a conversation with a middle-aged Palestinian woman from Jerusalem named Jean, who revealed the lengths to which Israel would go to revoke someone’s right to live in that city. In an attempt to prove that Jerusalem is no longer her “center of life,” the National Insurance Institute of Israel periodically raids her home, searching through her refrigerator and laundry baskets, taking photos of everything they see. According to the Israeli Ministry of the Interior’s statistics, more than 11,000 Palestinians between 1996 and 2012 lost their right to live in Jerusalem. Four thousand five hundred seventy seven Palestinians in 2008 alone had their blue identity cards taken away. The result, according to the Israeli human rights group, B’tselem, has been a “quiet deportation” of Palestinians out of Jerusalem.

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The word “weapon” is not used lightly; in addition to the blunt force of the vehicle itself, Israel and Caterpillar work together to equip CAT’s D-9 bulldozers with machine guns and grenade launchers.
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Essential to the Israeli military’s capacity to enforce this “quiet deportation” and the restrictions therein are biometric scanners, which read and store the fingerprints of Palestinians as they enter the checkpoints. The scanners are manufactured by a subsidiary of Hewlett Packard, a company in which my church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), is a significant shareholder.

Palestinian Girls in Bethlehem Photo Credit: Erin Dunigan
Palestinian Girls in Bethlehem
Photo Credit: Erin Dunigan

Another way that Israel has been systematically pushing Palestinians out of Jerusalem and the West Bank is through home demolitions. The Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD) reports that more than 28,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed since 1967. One hundred and eighty-nine houses were demolished in 2012, displacing 880 people, including more than 500 children. The Israeli government orders these demolitions on the grounds that the homes were constructed without the proper building permits. But, according to ICAHD, more than 94% of Palestinian applications for building permits on their own land are denied. Indeed, a Palestinian man I met in Jerusalem who worked as a dance instructor has been unsuccessfully trying to get a building permit for his family’s Jerusalem home for fourteen years now. Until he gets a permit, which may never happen, his home is at constant risk of demolition. According to ICAHD, 1,500 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem currently have demolition orders. Virtually no Jewish Israeli homes are at risk of demolition.

One of the principal weapons used by the Israeli government to destroy Palestinian homes are bulldozers made by Caterpillar, a company in which the Presbyterian Church (USA) invests some of its pension funds. The word “weapon” is not used lightly; in addition to the blunt force of the vehicle itself, Israel and Caterpillar work together to equip CAT’s D-9 bulldozers with machine guns and grenade launchers.

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For every lucrative contract Caterpillar signs to bulldoze Palestinian homes, for example, the Church, including my mother, stands to profit as well.
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In place of the demolished Palestinian homes, Israel often constructs Jewish settlements. These settlements, which are illegal under international law, are built in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem and continue to reach deeper and deeper into the Palestinian West Bank. Israel uses Caterpillar machinery to construct much of infrastructure that supports these settlements, including Israeli-only roads (without checkpoints), an illegal separation barrier, and water sourced from Palestinian land. Motorola Solutions, another company in which the Presbyterian Church (USA) invests a significant amount of money, has built cell phone towers in the settlements.

Separation Wall between the City of Bethlehem and the olive orchards of many farmers in the city Photo Credit: Erin Dunigan
Separation Wall between the City of Bethlehem and the olive orchards of many farmers in the city
Photo Credit: Erin Dunigan

The Israeli army patrols these illegal settlements with Hewlett Packard’s “Tadiran Communications ruggedized personal digital assistant,” according to the latest MRTI report. As for Motorola Solutions, its “Mountain Rose” communications system, battle-proof cell phones, and fuses for bombs further equip the Israel military. Brigadier General Shmuel Tzuker, head of Israel’s Ministry of Government Procurement said in January 2014 that Motorola’s new communication system “marks the transition of the smart-phone revolution to the battlefield of the future and will provide a significant advantage to the IDF and the entire security apparatus.”

Hewlett Packard—and by extension, the Presbyterian Church (USA)—is also involved in the Israeli military’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, a situation even more immobilizing and deadly than the occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. HP provides computer hardware to the Israeli Navy, which regularly shoots Palestinian fishermen who drift too close to the Israeli-imposed “buffer-zone.” Hewlett Packard also manages the Israeli military’s entire information technology system, which enables Israel to prevent anyone or anything from entering or leaving the Gaza Strip. One woman I met in Jerusalem cannot visit her 75-year-old aunt in Gaza because of the blockade. Furthermore, the blockade leaves her aunt and most other Palestinians in Gaza struggling to survive because Gaza is denied the right to import or export anything—even when Israel, Hamas, and various other armed groups are not fighting.

Divesting from Occupation

It was difficult on that warm May evening in West Jerusalem not to think of the sharp contrasts between life for the Palestinians I met and life for my Shabbat dinner companions. The relative freedom in which my Israeli friends and I live paled in comparison to the militarized open-air prisons in which most Palestinians live.

Photo Credit: Erin Dunigan
Photo Credit: Erin Dunigan

When I got back to my hotel later that night, I thought about my mother, a Presbyterian minister in Virginia, who will soon retire. Her PC(USA) pension, insofar as it includes investments in Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola, is invested in violently maintaining these inequalities I had just witnessed. For every lucrative contract Caterpillar signs to bulldoze Palestinian homes, for example, the Church, including my mother, stands to profit as well. It was this realization that made it clear to me: the Church should divest from companies that are enabling and profiting from the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Divesting from these companies will not impede the freedom that Rachel, Daniel, and their friends enjoy. It will not make them less safe. It will not injure them economically. On the contrary, divestment is a time-tested investment in non-violent resistance. Divestment is an investment in freedom and equality for Palestinians and Israelis. Divestment is an investment in hope for a Holy Land where race, religion, and nationality pose no restrictions. Divestment is an investment in love, peace, and justice prevailing for all.

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AUTHOR BIO: Robert B. Ross is a member of East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA, and an Assistant Professor of Global Cultural Studies at Point Park University. His research and teaching focus on the political geography of the Middle East, urban geographies of gentrification, and the political economy of sports.

See the overtures and reports regarding divestment coming before the 221st GA: 04-02, 04-06, 04-07, and 04-08.

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