Little did I know in June of 2014 that the next six months of my life would be spent in focused communications and conversations on the issue of divestment. But no issue that remerged from the 221st General Assembly meeting in Detroit has caused the same degree of emotional response.
Obviously we are a divided church over the issue. In the past two General Assembly meetings, the issue of divesting funds from certain American companies who are conducting business in Israel has been hotly debated. The ensuing votes of the almost 700 commissioners has been decided both times by less than 10 votes, with divestment being defeated one year and being affirmed two years later.
During the past 10 months I have received emails, letters, phone calls and personal visits from people who were thrilled, furious, grateful, heartbroken and passionate. No one seems to be lukewarm about the issue.
So in my efforts to serve our denomination by listening and loving, I have tried to distance myself from any personal opinions that I may have and truly hear the concerns and positions.
Let me also say that I have had two visits to Israel and Palestine in the recent past and have seen and talked with religious and political leaders who represent various positions.
Meeting with Palestinians and with representatives of the Israeli Palestinian Mission Network afforded me the chance to hear the loud calls for justice on the part of Presbyterians who believe that the inhumane treatment of Palestinians — with the building of a wall, of separate highways, of Israeli settlements on land designated by the United Nations as belonging to Palestine and with the intimidation and disproportionate numbers of killings of Palestinians — has got to stop. The Palestinians I’ve met with feel strongly that the conversations the PC(USA) has had with representatives from Hewlett Packard, Caterpillar and Motorola, over the past 10 years have brought no constructive results. The request is that these three companies stop selling items to the Israeli government that are then used in attacking or destroying Palestinians and their property. They feel that the only way
to bring about this change is to embarrass these companies into taking action, because obviously the approximately $21 million which is invested by various PC(USA) entities is not a significant financial loss to these businesses. In addition to these folks, a Jewish organization called Jewish Voice for Peace has affirmed the PC(USA) for its stand. Whereas this group represents a small percentage of Jews in the United States, they have had a powerful voice in the proceedings of the PC(USA), and have mounted an active campaign to support the idea of divestment. Concurrently a younger generation of Jewish college students has also been vocal in supporting the decision of the PC(USA). The greatest issue I have heard raised is one of fear — fear that Palestine will ultimately fail to exist because the rest of the world stood by and watched it destroyed.
But that is not the whole picture. The vast majority of Jewish leaders in the United States, as well as many members of the Jewish congregations, have risen up in vocal indignation about the decision. Many of these people have accused the PC(USA) of betraying our strong Jewish-Presbyterian bonds and of forsaking Israel. They feel that the decision to divest represents a strong, even though not necessarily intentional, anti- Semitic stance on the part of the Presbyterians. I have had meetings with many of these people and am getting ready to have more in the coming weeks. What I have heard in these conversations are realistic concerns over the future of Israel. “There is no country surrounding Israel on any side which would not like to see it destroyed,” they say. And most political pundits agree. They say, “To do anything that would prevent Israel from protecting itself is an act of retreat from a partnership and a relationship that has long been important to Americans and even more to Christians.” Divestment itself has overtones of wanting to pull away from our strong ties that bind and could ultimately result in a demise of the State of Israel.
Both of these bodies are speaking from legitimate positions of fear. Both have been victims of injustice and misunderstandings, of discrimination and prejudice. So what are the Presbyterians supposed to do?
Once again, people are divided on that answer. One businessman wrote and told me that it was “incredibly foolish and irresponsible for the PC(USA) to divest from these three companies.” He went on to say that our role as a denomination should not be to bring embarrassment to companions that are doing legitimate business. He said that the fact that the Israeli government chooses to use these products for unscrupulous purposes is “as silly as if someone who made steak knives was told they could no longer make them because folks had used them to commit murder.”
I have met with some of the executives of these three companies who also happen to be Presbyterians. Whereas each one has treated me with the greatest dignity and consideration, in
most instances they have felt grave disappointment and even anger with our church for what we have said about them. They feel that they are being criticized for actions being taken by the Israeli government and that it is unfair to accuse them as if they were in consort with Netanyahu to make weapons and materials according to their standards to be used in war. They adamantly deny such claims.
On the other hand, I have met with some employees of the three identified companies who have said they agree with the decision of the PC(USA), and while they cannot speak public in the defense of the church for fear of backlash, they believe that their companies would be a more ethical company if they didn’t supply the Israeli government with those identified products.
So what do we do with all of this conflicted data? The moderator is not supposed to issue an opinion on such matters, but instead to interpret and try to explain the actions of the General Assembly. But let’s try one other angle.
It seems that all parties involved are wanting to find a way to bring about some resolution to the horrors of injustice that are being perpetrated. To do this would require some way to restore trust — trust in communication, trust in the ways our denomination handles our affairs over such matters. So I ask the question, “Are there ways we can help bring about some new forms of trust?” I am not speaking for or against our denomination’s decisions to make decisions about ethical investments, but — if this is to be continued — can it be done in a manner that includes a way to build trust? Are we sincerely listening to all sides of these arguments? Might we look anew at how to stand up for justice by enabling agents to build trust?
Somehow I think that is what Jesus would want us to do.
HEATH K. RADA is the moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).