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In late June of this year, there was a significant victory for the intensifying global movement against the Israeli occupation. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. voted to divest their stock from three American companies (Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions) on the grounds that these companies participate in the unjust and illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Both supporters and opponents of the act have labeled it as "Israel divestment", but this label is inaccurate. The Presbyterian divestment is an all-American act: an American group divesting from American companies.
The church's rationale for economic divestment is explained in a 2010 report. It argues that the human rights violations imposed by the occupation required the group to "examine which of its investments supported and profited from that occupation" because such profits raise "questions of moral integrity." The strategy chosen by the group was to use "selective" divestment, targeting "companies supporting the occupation, not Israeli companies in general." The church’s latest report concluded that Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola contribute to and profit from "the relentless, five decade long, military occupation of the Palestinian territories" by enabling the construction of illegal settlements and by managing checkpoints that "dehumanize Palestinians" and "cut off innocent civilians from their property and natural resources.
The Presbyterian Church's resolution is persuasive because it embodies two principles: the recognition that without U.S. backing, Israel cannot continue its crimes against the Palestinians and violations of international law, and that the most direct path for Americans to change policy is at home, acting where they have the strongest political and economic power. By targeting three American companies that the Church is directly invested in—rather than offering a wholesale condemnation of Israel or Israeli commerce—the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is taking charge of the role its own funds play in enabling the criminality.
However, in public discourse, the Church's move is blurred: their action against American companies is portrayed as an action against Israel. This serves the interests of two radically different groups. If the Church’s divestment is falsely deemed as “anti-Israel” or “Israel divestment,” both Israel hardliners (who oppose the act), and the international BDS movement (who support the act) can use it as springboard for their own rhetoric.
For Israel hardliners, branding the act as "anti-Israel" serves as a diversion, shifting the topic away from the content of the accusations against the Israeli occupation. While the Church has repeatedly asserted Israel's right to exist, and called on Palestinian leadership to do the same, the act was predictably labeled “anti-Semitic”, and an AJC representative claimed it "empowered those within the denomination who are driven by hatred of Israel.”
By diverting the conversation to anti-Israeli sentiments, Israel hardliners pave the way for offering generic praise of Israel as a democracy. In his book The Time of the Green Line, sociologist Yehouda Shenhav describes the attitude of the elite Israeli ruling class—predominantly of European descent—who view their state as a transplanted Western nation, surrounded by uncultured Middle Eastern countries. They developed "a language in which Israel is described as a liberal democracy and the Arabs…are described as handicapped and insufficiently democratic. It's the language of a temporary visitor to the Middle East, who arrives not to immerse in its culture, but to exist in it as a guest."
Netanyahu adopts this language in talking about the Church’s divestment. He urged Americans to "look at what's happening in the Middle East" and recognize that "this enormous area [is] riveted by religious hatred, by savagery of unimaginable proportions." Within this area, Israel is "the one democracy that upholds basic human rights, that guards the rights of all minorities," and unlike its neighbors is "a beacon of civilization and moderation." A reaction by a Wiesenthal Center representative followed the same course: "An American Church punishes the sole Middle East democracy for the sin of safeguarding its security, while some of its Palestinian neighbors pass out sweets to celebrate the abduction of Israeli teenagers." But in all the distracting rhetoric, the Church's stance for the right of Palestinians to self-determination and against the occupation remains unanswered.
On the other end of the public debate, the international BDS movement was quick to praise the Church's act as a divestment victory. But for its part, the Church was careful to distance itself from BDS, stating that their action is "not to be construed or represented…as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement." In fact, the rest of the Presbyterian committee reports—which offer explicit endorsement of a two-state solution and repeatedly assert Israel right to exist as "Jewish state of Israel"—do not clearly fold into the BDS agenda. It’s not surprising that the BDS movement would like to group the Presbyterian divestment with its efforts, given the Church’s mainstream gravitas. However, the kind of tactics advocated by BDS, such as the call for blanket divestment from Israeli academic institutions, bears only superficial resemblance to the Church's action. If the BDS movement acknowledged the targeted nature of the Church’s actions (along with the Church’s focus on American companies), they would be much less likely to annex the Church’s action as a victory for BDS.
Both BDS and Israel hardliners, then, benefit from the confusion that the Church is engaging in general anti-Israel divestment. The former can then view it as a victory of their tactics, and the latter can use it to support the illusion that Israel is a victim of wholesale condemnation.
But the strength of the Church’s action is drawn from its carefully targeted pressure—focusing on the criminality and human rights violations of Israeli policy, and the institutions that enable it. The Church targeted companies for their direct involvement in perpetrating the atrocities of the occupation, not for a vague association with the State of Israel. Crucially, the group took action at home, knowing that American companies must be tuned at some level to American public opinion.
The Church's principled rationale for selective divestment stands on firm ground, built on strong international consensus and reams of evidence. Responses like the one offered by Netanyahu inevitably crumble in its light, by transparently failing to address the claims made against Israel’s policies. As Norman Finkelstein and others point out, the litany of human rights violations by the Israeli government won't continue to jibe even with young American Jews, whose outlook tends to be liberal and progressive. Once we cut through the rhetoric, it becomes clear that extending a selective divestment effort – and using it to educate the American public about the occupation and the vast arms that enable its existence – is an effective strategy toward justice in Palestine.
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