Duel over divestment prompts spate of letters and resolutions

DETROIT— In dueling letters, eight former moderators of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have lined up on opposing sides of the battle over proposals for divestment as a means of combating Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

A figure of world renown has also weighed in on the same issues from afar: On June 10, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who labored to end apartheid in his homeland of South Africa in the 1980s, released a letter urging the church to adopt measures labeling Israel an apartheid state and divesting itself of holdings in companies that contribute to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

And, in a resolution introduced Sunday, June 15, two commissioners ask that the General Assembly disavow a document that has been widely criticized as a defamation of Zionism, the belief that Jews have a unique bond — whether divine, secular or both — with the Holy Land. Another commissioners’ resolution calls attention to what it describes as the razing of fruit trees on a family farm by Israeli Defense Forces.

On Friday, June 13, former PC(USA) moderators John Buchanan and Susan Andrews and 27 other signatories, including two seminary presidents, released a letter aimed in part at that same document, a study guide titled “Zionism Unsettled” that was released early this year by the denomination’s Israel-Palestine Mission Network.

That letter, titled “The Things That Make for Peace,” says several overtures reflect the study guide’s arguments, and that taken together they create an atmosphere where “we are no longer debating how the occupation should end, but whether Israel should exist.”

The letter says the most obvious connection with “Zionism Unsettled” lies in an overture that “calls for the denomination to reconsider its decades-long support for a ‘two-state solution’ to the conflict, meaning a secure, independent Israel with a Jewish majority living in peace alongside a viable, independent Palestine.” Adopting that proposal, the letter says, would amount to endorsement of a single state lacking a Jewish majority, “which means an end to the state of Israel.”

The letter also links what it calls the study guide’s “rejection of a future for Israel” with the denomination’s debate over divestment and the international effort to bring pressure on Israel through boycotts, divestment and sanctions — an effort often referred to simply as BDS.

“The great problem with the BDS Movement is that, for many of its supporters, the goal is to bring an end to not just the 1967 occupation of Palestinian lands, but to having an independent state of Israel at all,” the letter states.

While the denomination is morally bound to take a stand against Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, the charge of apartheid “denies the ancient Jewish connection to and presence in the Holy Land,” the letter says. “The PC(USA) cannot allow itself to do that.”

The letter calls on the PC(USA) to stick with policies that call for “a negotiated two-state solution with a secure, Jewish and democratic Israel alongside a viable, independent Palestine; a substantial critique of unjust Israeli policies and practices against the Palestinian people, particularly the settlement enterprise…; a condemnation of violence perpetrated by either Israelis or Palestinians; and a commitment to economic investment in the Palestinian Territories to make the goal of an independent Palestine more achievable.”

On Sunday, June 15, seven former moderators of the PC(USA) responded to the letter from Buchanan, Andrews and their co-signatories with a letter expressing their own strong support for divestment. For the second time in two years, the General Assembly must decide whether to adopt a recommendation that it get rid of its financial holdings in three companies — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions — accused of supplying products and services that Israeli defense and security forces use to abuse and oppress Palestinian civilians.

That letter, titled “We Refuse to Be Enemies,” was signed by the former moderators Rick Ufford-Chase, Herb Valentine, John Fife, Patricia Brown, Fahed Abu-Akel, Jack Rogers and Bruce Reyes Chow. It calls divestment a matter of conscience and a faithful, principled response to a call for nonviolent resistance from Palestinians, including Christian leaders in Palestine.

“Our Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee has done due diligence over the course of the last ten years in engaging these three corporations,” the letter says. “It is entirely clear that these companies are profiting from business that is counter to our social witness policy.”

The letter also says that divestment can make a difference.

“No one cared what the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) believed about the evil of a decades-long occupation until we began to consider selling our stock,” it says. “The reason we are struggling about this matter is because it is the only thing we have contemplated that actually has the potential to help change the reality of the occupation.”

IMG_0612At a June 15 news conference held by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship to announce the letter, Ufford-Chase said “it does no one any good when we demonize people” with whom there are disagreements. He said the letter that Buchanan and others sent to General Assembly commissioners made “accusations of guilt by association that we find deeply unsettling.”

Ufford-Chase called the comments in Buchanan’s letter that linked advocates of the divestment proposal to the views of the white supremacist David Duke “deeply disturbing.” Buchanan’s letter said that Duke had issued “one of the earliest and loudest affirmations” of the study guide.

Abu-Akel, a Palestinian Christian and moderator of the 214th General Assembly, said at the news conference that the PC(USA) has “never been anti-Jewish, anti-Israel or anti-Semitic,” but is committed to supporting human rights. “We never said we want to divest from Israel,” but from three particular companies, he said.

Tutu’s letter says the church would act rightly by both labeling Israel an apartheid state and divesting. Those actions would amount to “speaking truth in the first instance, and owning up to the Church’s complicity in maintaining the occupation through its investments in the second,” his letter says.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Tutu supported divestment as a means of battling South African apartheid. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

His letter calls the parallels between Israel and South Africa in the apartheid era “painfully stark indeed.” Allowing Israeli apartheid to persist “is unsustainable and an offense to justice,” it says.

The resolution targeting “Zionism Unsettled” was put forward by Commissioners Michael Gizzi of Great Rivers Presbytery and Kenneth J. Macari of Elizabeth Presbytery. It calls on the assembly to declare that the study guide does not represent the views of the denomination. It would also require the staff of the Presbyterian Mission Agency to stop distributing copies of the study guide and remove it from the church’s Web store.

Another commissioners’ resolution calls for the assembly to condemn Israeli forces’ destruction of fruit trees on a family farm on the outskirts of Bethlehem last month. Offered by Commissioners Kyle Walker of Mission Presbytery and Dick Hasbany of Southern New England Presbytery, it commends the Palestinian family that owns the farm for establishing a peace project called “Tent of Nations” on their land.