Construing and Misconstruing the “Divestment” Vote
The Middle East is full of bad news these days. Whether the Presbyterian vote to divest from three U.S. corporations “engaged in non-peaceful pursuits in Israel/Palestine” at their recent 221st General Assembly is more bad news or a breath of fresh air is a matter of opinion. It is a small move, 10 years in the making. It will have no noticeable effect economically on the companies or Israel. It is a mostly symbolic expression of principle, of frustration, and of hope. The last is important. It would have been easier to do and say nothing, but doing and saying nothing is a (non-) gesture of despair.
I am not a Presbyterian, but I teach at a Presbyterian seminary, and thus Presbyterian issues are always heavy in the air I breathe. It is hard for me not to include myself in this Presbyterian work. Since I teach Comparative Religion (and thus Judaism) and have served on Jewish-Christian relations groups at the local, regional, and national levels, I have participated in these discussions for decades. I have visited Israel/Palestine a dozen times since 1982. I come to this writing with background. I was not at GA, but the Presbyterians document every sneeze, so it is possible to follow the debates closely from afar.
As I read countless articles and letters written by Jews and non-Jews objecting to the resolution, I am struck by the chasm between what the resolution actually says and what it is taken to be saying.
The vote was close and not simple. Influencing the actual behavior of three corporations was probably the least concern. For many, divestment was an expression of faithfulness to principles that have been consistently supported by the denomination for decades. For others the issue was tactics or appearances. For others still it was a matter of responsiveness to Jewish concerns. Any “interpretation” of the vote will inevitably distort the intentions of many if not most of the participants.
One of the difficulties with this 10-year slog through endless committee meetings, votes, and partner conversations is that so many have refused to attend to what the resolution actually says and does. For years I have heard this minimal proposal for divestment from three (originally five) companies described as “divestment from Israel.” It is quite obviously nothing of the kind, yet in spite of repeated corrections and clarifications, I have seen little effort in the Jewish community to correct this misrepresentation. I must take this distortion as a willful and deliberate tactic. That in itself has been a deep disappointment to many of us who have worked closely with the Jewish community at many levels. How can one have good faith conversations about such a difficult issue if the subject of the conversation is so consistently misconstrued?
Reading through some current and past responses to the GA’s work, there are other misconstruals that need to be addressed:
- It has been said that the resolutions did not reject the more controversial Zionism Unsettled curriculum. In fact, the General Assembly specifically stated that the curriculum does not represent Presbyterian “views.” They did indeed disassociate the Assembly from it, though the Assembly committee specifically voted not to stop its sale on the church online store. Subsequently, however, it was removed from the PC(USA) website.
- Some are very concerned that whatever the Presbyterians meant to do, what others will do with the vote will be far more damaging. That the media will distort what the General Assembly does is unsurprising and frankly expected. That “opponents of Israel” (a very ambiguous and misused designation) will rejoice that the PC(USA) has dealt a David blow to the Goliath Israel is also unsurprising, and irrelevant. The Presbyterian agenda and actions cannot be driven by such concerns. The GA addresses those many who will be guided, encouraged, inspired, and constructively provoked by what it has done.
- It is commonly repeated that sanctions have been only levied against Israel. That is false. First of all, sanctions are enacted against corporations, not countries. There are many countries that commit human rights violations, but without an American corporation directly involved specifically in those violations, the tool of divestment is unavailable. Second, currently the PC(USA) has divested from, or proscribed, 41 corporations for a variety of reasons. It should be noted that the Presbyterian Foundation currently holds stock in at least six Israeli companies uninvolved in the occupation. There is no move to divest from them. The issue is not Israel; it is the occupation.
I am well aware that most of my Jewish friends and most Jewish organizations have been opposed to this resolution. For that reason there have been endless discussions about its details and implications, and the resolution has been duly modified over the course of its evolution.
The Presbyterian Standpoint
Presbyterians have been active in the land of Israel and Palestine since the mid-19th century. This is not unfamiliar territory. Presbyterians have produced a number of detailed reports and statements on the Israeli-Palestinian issue going back decades. Reading through this history and extensive documentation, it is clear that the divestment initiative is quite consistent with stances that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has maintained over a lengthy period of time. The divestment resolution is not a new position. It is merely a new tactic. It is also clear from the documentation that Presbyterians have studied and reflected on Israel, Palestine, and Judaism deeply, comprehensively, and in consistent dialogue with Jews of many different persuasions.
The fact that divestment causes so much anguish among so many of my Jewish (and other) friends is of great concern, but I have never been convinced that most have either accurately gauged what the Presbyterian Church is saying and doing, or explored the thinking behind it. As I read countless articles and letters written by Jews and non-Jews objecting to the resolution, I am struck by the chasm between what the resolution actually says and what it is taken to be saying. The report of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment builds clearly on the concept that settlements and the occupation generally are obstacles to peace, and the church generally follows international treaties that endorse a two-state solution.
Presbyterians have been active in the land of Israel and Palestine since the mid-19th century. This is not unfamiliar territory.
The larger issue of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is endlessly complex. The Presbyterian overtures and the reports that various Presbyterian organizations have produced do not provide great wisdom as to its resolution, though they do make points of principle and describe a particular narrative of the history and nature of the conflict. That is, of course, in itself controversial. Divestment stands within the church’s history of concern for justice for the weaker party and for its own integrity as an investor. It also reflects the failure of many previous years of dialogue and moralistic statements, by the church and others, to slow the growth of settlements or make for a serious peace process.
When I teach about the conflict I provide two articles to my students. One is a modern history of the establishment of Israel produced by the Anti-Defamation League. The other is a similar narrative produced by the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). Both are well documented and represent views widely held. The drastic differences between the two narratives effectively demonstrate the challenges facing any who would try to understand the whats and whys of – well, what?
Even identifying the place and the issue can be freighted. I have been “over there” a dozen times. Am I going to Israel? To the Holy Land? To Israel/Palestine? To Israel and the Occupied (or Administered) Territories? And is the issue an Arab-Israeli issue or a Palestinian-Israeli issue? Do we see Jews in a sea of Arabs or Palestinians in a sea of Jews? Even the basic terminology one uses is tensive.
I also tell them that there are few better ways to ruin a party than to start talking about Israel and Palestine. But talk we must.
Jewish Responses and Future Conversation
At this point I must raise another concern. I have been at Jewish gatherings and heard conversation not intended for my ears about not letting the disagreements among Jews be known outside the Jewish community. The exact verbiage one time was “not do our laundry in public.” That compact is unraveling. We read that Hillel foundations have suppressed voices critical of Israeli policies, and that silencing is being challenged. We have seen J Street refused admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the conflict over that. These two issues are internal to the Jewish community and, frankly, none of my business, but they do indicate that the diversity of American Jewish opinion is greater than has been evident and that such diversity itself is a problem for many Jews who seek to portray American Judaism in monolithic support for Israel.
Concurrently, it does seem at times that the Jewish community wants to repress the Presbyterian voice. The problem appears to be not so much what they say but that they have the temerity to say anything at all. There is great condescension in that move. It implies that Presbyterians have approached discussion of the issues at hand mindlessly and are dismissive of Jewish concerns. It implies that Presbyterian understandings are inherently deficient if they do not accord with views of the Jewish community, or vocal portions of it. Clearly the PC(USA) cannot accept such a constraint. That they have done their homework is clear to any who care to look.
Concurrently, it does seem at times that the Jewish community wants to repress the Presbyterian voice. The problem appears to be not so much what they say but that they have the temerity to say anything at all.
Presbyterians must be faithful to their own history, their own principles, their own understanding of their relationship to Jews, to Israel, to Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and to their own theologies of the land and the covenant. A fundamental of that covenant and that theology is that we see ourselves as partners with Jews past and present, Jews in Israel and Jews in America. But a partnership requires not only that we listen honestly but also that we are listened to honestly. I have some concerns as to the latter. It is clear that there is still much work to be done between us.
I am planning my 13th trip to Israel and Palestine. As I did last time, I will ask my rabbi friends to set up some meetings for me, so that I may listen to the people they think I ought to be listening to. I will do the same with Palestinians.
Though I am not Presbyterian, I am proud of what the Presbyterians have been doing, proud of those on both sides of the close vote. There was admirable sincerity, wisdom, understanding, compassion, struggle, and hope on that assembly floor as the debate unfolded and the votes were tallied. And in spite of my complaints above, I am equally enthusiastic about continuing work with the Jewish community and all within it. They are my friends, my colleagues, and my fellow travelers. I cannot be a faithful Christian without them. We are not done with each other, no matter what threats have been spoken. We are not done.
There are few better ways to ruin a party than to start talking about Israel and Palestine. But talk we must.
 The action of the Middle East Committee can be found here. The subsequent decision by staff leaders to stop the sale of the document was contained in a press release. The document can purchased on the Israel Palestine Mission Network’s website. Editorial Note: The study guide nowhere claimed to be policy of the church, and no such requirement has previously been made of items from Presbyterian organizations and individuals from the online store. Clearly the Committee sought a balanced response that avoided censorship (as their debate noted). The current precedent raises a number of questions beyond this paper.
 Editorial Note: Prof. Bodman’s intent is clear: the church has divested from companies involved in questionable activities in a number of countries and concerns other than the occupation of Palestine. Economic sanctions applying to governments are authorized by the Security Council of the United Nations under a provision of its charter and sometimes include classes of corporations.
 Editorial Note: See Paul A. Hopkins, American Presbyterians and the Middle East Conflict (American Presbyterians, 68:3 (Fall 1990) for a good short history. Major reports were done in 1974, 1984, 1997, and 2010, with a number of study issues of Church & Society magazine as well.
AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Whitney Bodman is Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is an ordained United Church of Christ pastor who served parishes for over a decade before pursuing a doctorate in Comparative Religion and Islamic Studies at Harvard.