Israeli mother Frimet Roth has personally felt the pain of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict twice. In 2001 her 15 year-old daughter Malki was killed with 14 other innocent victims when a young Palestinian wearing hidden explosives detonated himself in a Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem. In 2011, she learned that Ahlam Tamimi, a Palestinian woman convicted of the mass murder, was being released from an Israeli prison as a part of the exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Roth and her family had to endure the televised pictures of smiling Palestinians being released to boisterous and cheering crowds without a mention of remorse for their acts.
On my first trip to Israel and Palestine in 2005, I listened to an Israeli doctor who counseled children who witnessed Palestinian suicide bombings. She explained that when a human being wraps explosives around their torso and detonates them, they do not simply disappear into a cloud of smoke like we see on television. Instead, the sight is horrific, graphic and something that anyone witnessing will never forget. It’s been almost ten years since I’ve heard that account, and I still find the thought of innocent children witnessing such terrible acts deeply disturbing. This is why the conflict must end and will end when Palestinians and Israelis of good will prevail.
I tell these stories because when divestment is again debated at the upcoming Presbyterian General Assembly, we will hear the word “justice” used passionately and often. But the “justice” called for by divestment advocates will not be justice for all. We will instead hear that the security measures Israel takes to protect its citizens are illegitimate and illegal. We will be told that these measures are nothing more than tools of oppression whose only purpose is to cause hardship and suffering for innocent Palestinians. Israelis, like Frimet Roth, who have lost loved ones will ask, “Why do you Presbyterians hate us? What have we done to you?”
Israel-targeted divestment is not a local or isolated initiative. Divestment is an integral part of the international Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement’s campaign against Israel, and if divestment is approved by the General Assembly, BDS leaders will claim that the PC(USA) has joined its ranks.
To be clear, many BDS supporters and followers are well-intentioned people who truly believe they are part of a movement for justice and peace. Unfortunately, they have been misled by those who make cynical use of progressive rhetoric to advance a malicious agenda.
BDS is a global campaign against Israel. It brands itself as a movement for justice and human rights, but what its agenda calls for in reality is injustice and the violation of human rights. BDS demonizes and dehumanizes Israel, delegitimizes the measures it takes to protect its civilians and seeks to eliminate it as the state of the Jewish people. It relies on several offensive, false and
misleading accusations to manipulate people of conscience into supporting a malicious agenda.
Tragically, we will find many of these false accusations in the text and supporting materials of BDS overtures at this year’s GA. Here are some examples:
1. Israeli Jews are European colonizers living on land stolen from indigenous Arabs.
Truth: The Jewish people are indigenous to Israel, the birthplace of their identity, language, religion and culture. Historical and archeological evidence confirms that Jews have maintained a continuous, documented presence in the land of Israel for over 3,000 years.
2. Israel is guilty of ethnic cleansing/genocide against Palestinians.
Truth: The Palestinian refugee crisis was a tragic byproduct of the war Arab leaders launched in 1947 to destroy the Jewish state. Israel offered the Arabs in its territory citizenship and 160,000 of them accepted. They became equal citizens of Israel and make up 21% of the population today. The Arab population of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza has grown by millions since Israel’s establishment.
3. Israel is an apartheid state.
Truth: Israel is the opposite of an apartheid state. The human rights NGO Freedom House consistently ranks Israel as the only free country in the Middle East, and prominent South Africans of conscience have denounced this accusation as offensive and false. Israel is a multicultural, liberal democracy with a legal system that upholds equal rights, liberties and protections for all of its citizens. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not citizens or residents of Israel and do not wish to be. They have their own national movement and their own governments – Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
BDS advocates will try to equate divestment with the American civil rights movement and the movement against apartheid in South Africa, but the comparison is false. The American civil rights movement was about a minority seeking basic rights as citizens of their country. The movement against South African apartheid was about an oppressed majority seeking the same basic rights. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, is about two national movements and two peoples.
Both the civil rights movement and the movement against apartheid had a plan of action: to enact laws and practices that gave the full rights of citizenship to all of the country’s people, regardless of race or ethnicity. The BDS movement has no real plan to “end the occupation,” which cannot be addressed in isolation from the conflict. The conflict and occupation can only be ended by both parties agreeing to peaceful coexistence and each people fully recognizing the rights of the other.
The real plan forward is to continue the foundation-building necessary for sustainable peace. This means more grassroots coexistence efforts bringing ordinary Palestinians and Israelis together to learn from and respect one another. It means more economic cooperation between Palestine and Israel, not less. It means two states for two peoples.
I hope and pray that those asked to discern the issue of divestment will feel called to embrace genuine Christian peacemaking and will reject in the strongest possible terms the polarizing agenda of divestment and the BDS movement.
GEORGE DOUGLAS is a ruling elder at Pacific Palisades Presbyterian Church in Southern California. He is a member of the steering committee of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.