“Divestment” (or “disinvestment”) refers to the strategy of refusing to invest (or selling existing investments) in a government, industry or company for ethical or political reasons. It’s a kind of economic boycott, often based on the idea that money should be invested in a socially responsible way. Divestment is sometimes designed to pressure its target to change its policies; for example, divestment from South Africa was designed to end apartheid. In other cases, divestment is a form of protest or punishment: against Sudan, for example, for its involvement in the genocide in Darfur.
These days, the primary target for divestment is Israel, as a result (so it is said) of Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Divestment is a hot topic for the moment, because last week the general convention of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted in favor of a measure to divest church funds from three corporations (Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions) that the church believes are profiting from the Israeli occupation. The Presbyterian measure also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a “two state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, called for interfaith dialogue, and recommended “positive investment” in endeavors that advance peace in the region.
The vote was close. Many American Jewish organizations lobbied the Presbyterians to defeat the divestment vote, although one (the very controversial Jewish Voice for Peace) actively supported the effort.
I think this is a topic ripe for Jewish-Christian dialogue. In an effort to get this dialogue moving, I will first speak briefly here to my Jewish friends, and then at greater length to my Christian friends.
Fellow Jews: this action by the Presbyterians was a long time coming. The Presbyterians have debated similar divestment actions for the past ten years. During these ten years, we’ve given the Presbyterians no reason to believe that Israel will resolve this matter and end the military occupation on its own. Despite the cries of anti-Semitism from some Jewish circles, the Presbyterian action here was about as restrained as could be hoped for under the circumstances. Moreover, the Presbyterian vote is one sign of a long-term erosion in support for Israel that has parallels even in the Jewish world. There is growing opposition to Israel’s policies in Jewish circles, and much of the remainder of Jewry is growing weary of defending an Israeli military occupation that is more than 40 years old and stretching into seeming perpetuity. Entire generations of American Jews have grown up during the occupation, and these Jews may be less attached to Israel (and more sympathetic to the Palestinians) than their elders. The continued occupation hurts Jews as well as Palestinians.
It is true that the facts on the ground are complex, and that the Palestinians share responsibility for the impasse with Israel and for their own economic and political plight. It is true (sadly) that the Presbyterian divestment action ignores this complexity, sending a message that is confused, poorly conceived and seemingly designed to force us into a knee-jerk kind of opposition. It is true (sadly) that Christians don’t understand us and don’t know how to speak to us – that’s one reason for this blog, one reason for the kind of interfaith dialogue I’d like to build here. But we cannot and should not seize upon Christian failure to understand us as an excuse to fail to understand them – there are 160 Christians in the world for every Jew; they are more powerful than we are, and the consequences of a mutual failure of understanding fall disproportionately on us.
For all of its naïve simple-mindedness, we Jews can hear something intelligible in the Presbyterian muddled message: even our friends will not accept an indefinite military occupation as a solution to our problem, or to any problem, no matter how complex that problem might be. This occupation must come to an end.
It is possible that the Presbyterian action is motivated in part by latent or active anti-Semitism. It is also possible that the action is motivated by a true desire for peace. There are something like 2 million members of this church, and it is possible for a single church to be motivated by different and conflicting concerns. I assume that there are members of this church who sincerely seek peace in the Middle East. We should tell them, we seek the same thing, with all our heart. It is our people that face the threat of Palestinian terrorism, who see our Promised Land divided by concrete walls and barbed wire, whose sons and daughters patrol these occupied territories. We are cursed by this conflict, as we will be blessed by an end to this conflict. If the Presbyterians want to be our partners in peace, let us accept their help, and find a way to work together.
[A pause, while I take a deep breath.]
My Christian friends: a little history is in order here. Because if your intent is to change the hearts and minds of Jews, you have blundered onto a strategy that could hardly be more counter-productive.
Jews have been the targets of organized Christian economic pressure for most of our shared history. Time permits only a brief discussion. Christian efforts to hurt Jews economically go back to at least the year 339, when Jews were prohibited by the Roman Empire from owning slaves. (Any prohibition of slave-owning is a good thing, but the prohibition against Jews owning slaves barely put a dent in the practice Empire-wide – the intent was not anti-slavery, but anti-Jewish.) A century later, Jews were barred from holding any “office of honor” in the Roman Empire, and a century after that, Jews were forbidden from testifying against Christians in court. By the Middle Ages, Jews were barred from guilds and professions such as ironmongers, shoemakers, tailors, barbers, butchers and rag dealers. Jews were prohibited from owning land, and were often forced to live in ghettos, effectively prohibiting them from doing business with Christians and the outside world.
In more recent history, European Christians sought to harm Jews economically by means of boycotts. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, various “Christian” campaigns were organized in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe to boycott Jewish businesses. These campaigns adopted slogans such as “Don’t Buy Jewish,” “Buy Christian Only” and “Each to His Own.” Some of these campaigns worked at apparent cross-purposes. For example, shortly before World War I Ukrainians organized to boycott Jewish businesses because of alleged Jewish collaboration with Poles, while Poles organized their own anti-Jewish boycotts as a defense against alleged Jewish exploitation.
The first Nazi action taken against Jews was a nationwide boycott of German Jewish businesses that took place on April 1, 1933. On the day of the boycott, Nazi Stormtroopers painted yellow and black Jewish stars on the windows and doors of Jewish businesses, then stood menacingly in front of these businesses, daring customers to enter. The Nazis planned and supported this boycott, posting signs in Jewish neighborhoods saying “Don’t Buy from Jews” and “The Jews Are Our Misfortune.” A week later, the Nazis barred Jews from the civil service (including the practice of law) and fired all Jewish government workers, including teachers in public schools and universities. Historians now understand these actions as the beginning of the Holocaust.
Every economic action taken against Jews, whether by the Romans or by the Presbyterians, was ostensibly based on a supposed “just cause.” These “causes” are long forgotten today. All that is remembered is the intent to injure and destroy Jews and Judaism. If the Presbyterian divestment action is intended differently, then it stands as an exception to the rule. This is true even if we focus our attention solely on economic actions taken against the modern State of Israel. These actions also have a long history, much longer than the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Arab boycotts of Zionist institutions and Jewish businesses began before Israel’s founding as a state. When Palestine was ruled by the British, Palestinians who sought to sell land to Jewish settlers were sharply criticized by Arab leaders and spokesmen. Some Arabs who sold land to Jews were murdered by other Arabs (even today, a Palestinian who sells land to an Israeli citizen is guilty of a crime punishable by death by the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinians suspected of selling land to Jews have been murdered by other Palestinians). An official boycott of Israel and firms doing business with Israel was adopted by the Arab League almost immediately after the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, and continues to this day. Israel fought its War of Independence in 1948 (after being attacked by Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria) under an arms embargo imposed on the region by the United States. The embargo prevented Israel from receiving arms from nearly all conventional sources, but did nothing to restrict the flow of arms to Arab countries. (The Arab countries had received arms from Britain and continued to do so during the War; the Israelis won this War with arms they smuggled into the country, primarily from Czechoslovakia.) By the 1960s Israel received most of its arms from France, but the French imposed an arms embargo on Israel in 1967, shortly after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. (Israel received no arms from the United States until the 1960s, and there was no significant U.S. military support of Israel until after the 1967 war.) All of these punitive economic measures predate Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and they all posed obstacles to Israel’s survival.
Why have I bothered to recall all of this ancient history? I am not trying to suggest that last week’s vote by the Presbyterians can be equated with boycotts enforced by Nazi Stormtroopers, or medieval efforts to ghettoize Jews and Judaism. I am saying that Presbyterian divestment will be seen by most Jews as part of a long, unfriendly and determined effort by outsiders (primarily Christians) to coerce Jews, hinder Jewish aspirations, and injure and destroy the Jewish people. Jews know their history too well to be fooled into believing that anti-Jewish economic sanctions sprang into existence in 1967, and will magically disappear when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is finally resolved.
As I stated above, I cannot judge the true intent of the Presbyterians who supported divestment, but if the effort is well-intended, it is also tone-deaf. Threatening Jews with economic sanctions is about as likely to persuade as an offer to Christians of thirty pieces of silver. It is the opposite of the proverbial “offer you can’t refuse” – it is, instead, the “offer you can’t accept.” If the Presbyterians intentionally set out to be misunderstood by Jews, then they succeeded with remarkable effectiveness. By and large, Jews will react to these sanctions the way we’ve reacted to them in the past, and will probably react to them in the future. It is a confirmation of our worst fears, that we have no human agency we can depend upon but ourselves. That message has served us well for our history, but I would argue that it no longer serves us well. In fact, I’d argue that this message is the number one reason for Israeli intransigence, and it is in this terribly ironic way that the Presbyterian effort is likely to promote precisely the actions and attitudes it seeks to combat.
How can the Presbyterians do better?
I think one critical component missing from Presbyterian thought is their own responsibility for the mess in Israel and Palestine. Here, I am thinking not about Presbyterian investment policy, but about the long history of Jewish-Christian relations, which includes what has been (until recently) an intensely negative relationship between Jews and Protestants. The Jewish presence in Israel, and more specifically the formation of a Jewish State in Israel, is the direct result of centuries of Christian (and Protestant) persecution of Jews in Europe, a persecution that culminated in the murder of 2/3 of European Jewry in the Holocaust. While we can debate Christian (and Protestant) responsibility for this genocide, the initial European/American Christian (and Protestant) reaction to the Holocaust is not debatable. After the Holocaust, there was no sustained effort to reintegrate Jews into European society. Those few Jews who managed to survive the Holocaust were forced into displaced persons camps, or returned to “home” towns where their homes and other properties had been taken from them by their Christian former neighbors. In some cases, these returning Jews were murdered by Christians in pogroms as fierce as any seen before or during the War. Even after the War, the United States imposed restrictive immigration quotas against Jewish refugees, but the United States behaved much better in this regard than did their European counterparts. Granted, most of surviving European Jewry hoped to immigrate to Israel, but the clear message we received from European Christianity was that they were glad to see us go.
Presbyterians need to see the State of Israel for what it is: not merely the culmination of nearly 2,000 years of Jewish longing for an end to exile, but also as a last-ditch multinational effort to relocate Jews outside of Christian Europe, onto a different continent that had already proven itself every bit as opposed to a Jewish presence. The failure to establish peace in Israel is one that is widely shared, and not just by Israelis and Palestinians. Much blame belongs to the Christian West, whose persistent anti-Judaism made the creation of a State of Israel a moral imperative, but that failed initially to provide the State with even the slightest protection against its determined Arab opponents. The fact that we Jews found a way to survive there, but have not yet found a way to do so peaceably, should come as no surprise to anybody. If the Presbyterians are now (finally) determined to act rightly with respect to this State, and to act justly towards Israelis and Palestinians, their first action might appropriately be an apology.
The apology might appropriately be followed by a concerted effort to form alliances with Jews that are actively seeking a just and peaceful resolution to this conflict. The Presbyterian interest in Jewish Voice for Peace is a start, but Jewish Voice for Peace is a fringe group with little representation or support in the Jewish world. Presbyterians should reach out to a wider Jewish peace constituency, including organizations like J Street and Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, both of which support a two-state solution (but oppose divestment). Within Israel, there are groups working for peace and justice that need outside support – two groups I’m familiar with are Rabbis for Human Rights and B’Tselem, but there are many others.
I’m open to any other suggestions for constructive and concerted action. In the absence of more worldly suggestions, we might try prayer. Here’s one that works for me: Sim Shalom. The prayer begins:
שִׂים שָׁלוֹם טוֹבָה וּבְרָכָה
חֵן וָחֶֽסֶד וְרַחֲמִים עָלֵֽינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל עַמֶּֽךָ
Sim shalom tovah u-ve-raħa
Ḥen vacħesed ve-raħamim aleinu ve-al kol Yisrael amekha
Grant peace, goodness and blessing, grace, kindness and mercy,
to us and to all Your people Israel.