In the ten years since the 216th Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly, much has been said about the issue of divestment in regard to Israel. Divestment has been a major target of Israel’s multi-million dollar hasbara campaign (“public diplomacy” for reshaping world opinion about Israel), funded partly by the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry with help from related organizations. Before this June’s gathering of the 221st General Assembly, let us refresh our collective memory about this issue and distinguish between mythology and actual fact.
MYTH #1: The idea for divestment came from the PC(USA) hierarchy
Fact: After seeing the remains of Palestinian homes demolished by militarized Caterpillar bulldozers, members of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, Florida, started a grassroots effort by sending an overture for divestment from CAT to their session. The session sent it to the Presbytery of St. Augustine, which in turn sent it to the 216th General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia. “Item 12-01” was referred to the Mission Responsibility through Investment Committee (MRTI) “with instructions to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance to General Assembly policy on social investing … .” Moderator of that assembly, Rick Ufford-Chase, recently told me that since Westminster’s prophetic challenge to commissioners, “this has been a question of conscience. Are we willing, as we have been in numerous other instances from South Africa to the Sudan to tobacco and alcohol investments in the United States, to assure that our investment portfolio is an integral part of our social witness as a denomination?”
MYTH #2: The church is calling for divestment from Israel
Fact: This has been one of the most pervasive false claims about Presbyterian divestment since 2004. No official PC(USA) entity has ever called for divestment from or boycott of Israel. What has been called for by overtures and MRTI recommendations is divestment from American — not Israeli — corporations that profit from non-peaceful pursuits, especially through occupation and settlement building activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The 2012 General Assembly call to boycott specified only Israeli companies that manufacture products in illegal settlements. This action was completely consistent with longstanding PC(USA) policy and U.S. foreign policy that repeatedly condemns the building of illegal Israeli settlements in the OPT.
MYTH #3: Divestment does not work
Fact: This is like saying, “integrity does not work,” as one purpose of divestment is the integrity of the church. Choosing to divest is about seeking to bring church financial practice into line with the moral conscience of our faith tradition: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). But divestment is also effective. As the MRTI website states: “Divestment is a last resort option should corporations be unwilling to use our resources in ways that promote peace with justice. In the past, when engagement through conversation and shareholder action has failed, divestment has been necessary as a matter of conscience.” It is always our hope that divestment changes corporate behavior. Before that is even a consideration, however, our chief call is to fidelity in Christ who was anointed to “proclaim release to the captive … recovery of sight to the blind … liberty to the oppressed … and the year of jubilee” (Luke 4) for all God’s people.
MYTH #4: Divestment as a strategy for justice in Palestine is losing momentum
Fact: Propaganda, and simply not true. Since 2004 when the PC(USA) issued one of the first public calls to examine these investments, a worldwide movement has emerged. Hundreds of secular and faith-based entities have become involved in both divestment from and boycotts of Israel’s military occupation. The list includes U.S. and international pension funds, trade unions, colleges and universities, charitable organizations, citizen organizations, government entities, banks and investment companies, as well as ecclesiastical bodies. The number of those voting for either divestment and/or boycott has increased every year since 2004. The math is simple: as more people in the world become aware of the brutality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, more organizations and entities sign on for divestment and boycott. The momentum towards justice in Palestine is not decreasing but increasing.
MYTH #5: “Positive investment” will fix the problem
Fact: In 2012, an anti-divestment group in the PC(USA) announced it would hold a breakfast at the General Assembly that would feature Palestinian business leaders who support “positive investment.” When these leaders discovered that the breakfast was intended to oppose and replace divestment, they pulled out. The reason? Even though they need development capital in Palestine, they know it will not dismantle massive settlement cities of hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers; it will not bring down 30-foot concrete walls illegally winding their way through the West Bank cutting Palestinian off from Palestinian; and it will not allow large-scale export of goods produced by Palestinian agriculture or industry. Moreover, investment in Palestine will certainly not end the expansionist policies of the Israeli government, with its nonstop settlement building and the appropriation of more Palestinian land and natural resources. Even the blockade and military control of Gaza’s borders are partly designed to hold Palestine’s economy captive. While some small projects for investment may be found that primarily benefit Palestinians, there is not enough critical mass to bring necessary changes that will ensure Palestinian freedom and sovereignty. “Positive investment” is a sentimental illusion that ignores Israeli economic hardball and is far harsher than boycott or divestment.
These five persistent myths are marketed for the primary purpose of changing the subject from Israel’s illegal occupation and program of settlement building in Palestine. But as the world goes and sees for itself, these myths collapse under their own weight. It is a lie to say that Presbyterian actions regarding divestment and boycott are an abandonment of our historic friendship with Israel and the Jewish people. Rather, these strategies of nonviolent, economic resistance are our last-ditch effort to make the point: Friends do not let friends occupy other people and violate their human rights.
JEFFREY DEYOE is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Ft. Myers, Florida. He also is a member of the steering committee for the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).