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Presbyterians Divest From the Israeli Occupation: The End of the Beginning?

The US Presbyterian Church’s vote to divest from companies involved in the Israeli occupation may be a major turning point in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict.

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When there is a just resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, I will claim that June 20, 2014 marked a turning point.

That was the day that the Presbyterian Church, USA voted to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions as a result of these companies’ continued involvement in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and these companies’ continued refusal to change their policies.

Many people are fond of saying that the Israel-Palestine conflict is complicated. Of course it’s a truism: all interesting things in human affairs are complicated. But frequently the intent of saying that the Israel-Palestine conflict is complicated is to imply that the listener should refrain from trying to do something about it. “It’s complicated,” so don’t worry your pretty little head about it. Of course, if we accept the idea that we shouldn’t try to do anything because “it’s complicated,” we’re not being neutral. If we do nothing when there is a good opportunity for an ethical and helpful action, we take the side of the status quo.

What’s going on in Iraq is complicated. But we don’t need to know and understand every detail of Iraq’s political history to understand that US military force is not going to solve Iraq’s political problems and that demands for direct US military intervention in Iraq are a bad idea that we should oppose. Telling your member of Congress to oppose US airstrikes in Iraq is an ethical and helpful action. You don’t need a degree in Iraqi history to take the action with a good conscience.

The basic idea of divesting from the Israeli occupation is quite simple. It is generally understood that at the end of the day a just resolution to the conflict is going to be a resolution that’s negotiated. But right now the Palestinian victims of occupation do not have enough political power to negotiate a just resolution.

The US-led “peace process” has failed, fundamentally, to produce a resolution because the United States and its allies have been unable or unwilling to stop the Israeli government from confiscating and building on Palestinian territory in the West Bank, which any representative group of Palestinians would insist would have to be part of a Palestinian state in order for a two state resolution to the conflict to be a just resolution.

If there is to be a just resolution, some sufficiently potent other groups of people will have to effectively weigh in on the side of the Palestinian victims of occupation.

In this context, the Presbyterian vote to divest from the Israeli occupation could be the “end of the beginning” of efforts to bring about a just resolution of the conflict.

Until now, supporters of the occupation have effectively used threats and intimidation to block effective action to help redress the power imbalance so that Palestinians can negotiate a just resolution.

But when the Presbyterians voted to divest, it was a decisive repudiation of these threats. In the future, if these threats are deployed to try to block action to redress the power imbalance, the power of these threats is going to be greatly diminished.

Suppose that another American Protestant church now contemplates divesting from the Israeli occupation. Suppose that supporters of the occupation try to block this action by accusing the supporters of divestment of being people who hate Jews. Will any significant group of mainstream American Protestants see this as a credible threat?

After June 20, 2014, to assert in the United States that people who support divestment from the Israeli occupation hate Jews you must also assert that 1.8 million Presbyterians in the United States hate Jews. No significant group of mainstream Protestants in the United States will see this as a credible threat, after the Presbyterians succeeded in staring it down. The Presbyterians stood tall in the face of threats and lived to tell the tale, people will say. Why should we be cowards?

This turning point in our national discourse about the Israel-Palestine conflict is a significant political achievement, and the lion’s share of the credit goes to the Presbyterians who have been slogging away on this front for 10 years.

But it is beyond reasonable dispute that Jewish Voice for Peace played a decisive role.

I was at the Presbyterian general assembly, following the debate. The argument that was most invoked by the opponents of divestment amounted to this: if we divest from the Israeli occupation, the Jewish community will be mad at us.

The presence – or the “witness,” as some Christians might say – of Jewish Voice for Peace at the Presbyterian assembly undermined this argument. It did not stop this argument from being made; it did not stop this argument from having weight. It undermined this argument just enough to prevent it from carrying the day.

Here’s how The New York Times told the story:

Of more influence was the presence at the church’s convention all week of Jewish activists, many of them young, in black T-shirts with the slogan “Another Jew Supporting Divestment.” Many of them were with Jewish Voice for Peace, a small but growing organization that promotes divestment and works with Palestinian and Christian groups on the left.

Right before the vote, some Presbyterian commissioners sought out Rabbi Alissa Wise, a co-director of organizing for Jewish Voice for Peace, who spent a week inside the convention center and spoke at a prayer service in a Presbyterian church. She told them that divestment can serve a constructive purpose. “To me, this helps Palestinians build their power,” she said, “so that Israel is convinced, not by force, but by global consensus that something has to change.”

Now, given that the Presbyterians were told that the main reason to vote against divestment was that Jews who support the Israeli occupation were going to be mad, what do you suppose is happening now? Jews who support the Israeli occupation are denouncing the Presbyterians.

Of course, Jewish Voice for Peace is pushing back against the people who are attacking the Presbyterians. You can add your voice here.

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