For decades Presbyterians have wrestled with conflicted feelings over their relationships with Palestinians and Israelis. We hold close to our hearts the Palestinian Christians with whom our mission workers long have partnered. We also hold close to our hearts the Israeli Jews, our progenitors in the faith whose offspring suffered the Holocaust. For the past eight years we’ve argued the merits and demerits of a proposal to divest from corporations allegedly profiting from unjust and violent treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli occupiers of their land.
As commissioners to the 220th General Assembly prepare to cast votes for or against that proposal, what more might one add to the arguments already made? Perhaps one might raise a few more questions.
Before doing so, let’s be clear about the realities on the ground. Israelis have good reason to fear for their country’s existence. The massacre of their parents and grandparents by Hitler’s minions is still celebrated by too many others, and some hotheaded Arabs bloviate about wanting to drive Israelis into the sea. Israel has responded with the construction of the barrier fence/wall, the profligate construction of illegal settlements, the requirement of work permits, the arbitrary denial of passage through checkpoints, and the miserly distribution of basic necessities like running water. These policies have condemned the Palestinians to a generations-long condition of poverty, statelessness and despair.
Both these narratives are reality for those telling them. Our efforts to intervene demand that we be informed by those stories. And they prompt us to ask a few tough questions.
First, who’s to blame for the erection of the barrier and the destruction of homes? Caterpillar’s armored bulldozers are being utilized, but they are driven by soldiers who, in turn, are taking orders from Israeli government officials. Does it make sense to punish the tertiary causes while leaving the primary causes unnamed and unchallenged? Would it not make more sense to take direct action against the government’s profitability — by, perhaps, calling Christians worldwide to boycott Israel-sponsored tours of the Holy Land and, instead, to tour the region under the leadership of Palestinian Christians? Would not that kind of boycott and reinvestment make a much greater impact?
Second, what are we trying to accomplish? Withdrawing invested funds from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard will do no harm to those companies. Our stock certificates will simply change hands in a Wall Street second — and each corporate board will be relieved to wash us nags right out of its hair. Yes, such action on our part would clear our guilty capitalist consciences and provide a token expression of support to the beleaguered Palestinians, but “token” is the operative term. So far, our public debates on divesting — along with the few actual withdrawals taken by other organizations like the Quakers — have stirred the ire of Israel advocacy groups, but they have exerted no influence on Israel’s leaders’ treatment of Palestinians. Symbols don’t substance make.
Third, do we believe in doing justice? In the recently updated EthicalConsumer.org “Oppressive Regimes” list, Israel’s treatment of its minorities ranks it as the 25th most oppressive regime out of 196 across the globe. That’s bad. However, India ranks 23rd, Saudi Arabia 14th, Pakistan 13th, and China second. Our calls for justice in Israel would pass more muster if we would also take action on behalf of China’s Falun Gong minority, who are being arrested without cause, imprisoned without trial and executed for body part transplants. Would not our high-minded calls for justice command more respect if we were to study and propose interventionist actions against these kinds of injustice as well? Selective righteous indignation does not persuade.
Don’t take this to be a way to divert attention from the particular oppression of the Palestinians, nor to undermine the heartfelt desire to stand against any particular injustice. But as a national church with an international voice, we need to act on principle, with a view to seeing justice rain down on all.