Jewish interfaith leaders and those who fight the global effort to delegitimize Israel were scrambling this week to assess just how much damage was done when the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted Friday to divest from three American companies doing business in the Jewish state.
The vote, by a razor-thin 310-303 margin at the mainline Protestant denomination’s General Assembly last week, comes on the heels of a decision by the pension board of the United Methodist Church to sell its holdings in the British G4S company, which provides security equipment for Israel’s prison system. And it comes six months after the American Studies Association, in a largely symbolic slap at Israel, became the first academic group in the U.S. to call for an academic boycott of the Jewish state.
“There is always concern when a significant [religious] body passes a divestment measure, but there are particular realities in the Presbyterian Church that make it possibly unique,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, who coordinates interfaith relations for the American Jewish Committee.
He called the vote “the church’s ‘Zionism is Racism’ moment,” a reference to an infamous 1975 UN resolution. “Divestment reflects a new level of Israel demonization.”
Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of the Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, who coordinates the country’s response to the BDS movement, called the vote “a disturbing development.”
The economic affect on Israel will be “negligible,” he told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from Jerusalem on Monday. “I don’t believe too many people will follow suit” and adopt similar proposals. “I’m not worried about a domino effect. The Presbyterians themselves were deeply divided on the issue.”
But, Kuperwasser said, adopting a divestment measure helps those who “attempt to paint Israel as a terrible place and Jews as terrible people. The Presbyterians are giving support to such a heinous effort. If you want to contribute to peace, this is not the way. It’s just giving negative incentive to the Palestinians.”
However, Americans for Peace Now, in a statement released Monday, interpreted the vote not as a condemnation of Israel, per se, but of its policies in the West Bank. “While the decision of PC (USA) causes great pain for many of us, the discourse and debate surrounding the [Presbyterians’] decision — this year and in prior years — made clear that it is the occupation, not Israel, that is the focus of PC (USA)’s concerns and frustration,” the statement said. “Anti-Israel forces were quick to claim PC (USA)’s decision, passed by a very narrow margin, as a victory for their odious cause, but that does not make it so.
“The truth — evident to anyone who’s watching and listening to the proceedings or who reads the text of the resolution PC (USA) adopted — is that the decision was explicitly and emphatically grounded in commitment to and concern for Israel, in recognition of Israel and its right to exist with peace and security, and in rejection of boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts targeting Israel,” the APN statement continued.
Close observers of the Protestant world told The Jewish Week that they did not expect the Presbyterian vote to have a ripple effect among other mainline Protestant denominations. (Two smaller Protestant denominations — the Quakers, in 2012, and Mennonites last year — passed divestment resolutions, but the 1.8 million-member Presbyterian Church is by far the largest mainline branch to vote for divestment.)
“The divestment vote will ultimately have no significant effect on the Middle East and instead will further marginalize the already fast declining PC (USA), which is losing almost 100,000 members annually and at this rate won’t exist in less than 20 years,” Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an interdenominational Washington-based Christian think tank with strong Methodist roots, told The Jewish Week in an email interview.
“Of course the PC (USA) vote will sour official relations with Jewish groups. But hopefully there’ll be stronger ties between Jews and individual Presbyterians, most of whom almost certainly don’t support divestment,” Tooley said. “Likely no other major denominations will follow PC (USA) on divestment. It’s not a current issue for the Episcopal Church or other historically liberal mainline churches.”
Antonios Kireopoulos, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches, an umbrella group of 37 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, agreed. “Each church approaches the issue in its own way.” Asked if the Presbyterian action would harm wider Jewish-Christian relations, Kireopoulos said, “I don’t think so. I haven’t heard any indication of that.”
But Jewish interfaith leaders are anxious nonetheless.
Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the group’s point person on divestment, called the vote “devastating.” He added, “We hope it is an isolated situation.”
The AJC’s Rabbi Marans added, “The Jewish community needs to be vigilant. There is reason for concern that [the Presbyterian vote] will embolden others” to support divestment from Israel, though he added that “the particular dynamics of the Presbyterian Church allow fringe voices to be given a hearing that does not happen elsewhere.”
The Methodist Church and United Church of Christ, major Protestant denominations that will hold their national conventions next summer, have not yet announced what proposals they will consider in 2015.
The Presbyterian resolution withdraws $21 million in investments from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. Divestment advocates in Presbyterian circles have claimed that the three companies in which the church had invested profit from the Israeli “occupation” of Palestinian territories.
The group’s General Assembly vote in Detroit, which followed the defeat two years ago, by two votes, of a similar resolution, came a half-year after the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a Presbyterian advocacy group, issued a study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” which challenged the history and theological legitimacy of the Zionist movement.
The Presbyterian vote cast a spotlight on a little-known Jewish organization on the left fringe of the community, Jewish Voice for Peace. Members of the group — which says it is agnostic on the issue of a two-state solution and believes the BDS movement is a legitimate way to fight Israel’s policies in the West Bank — were visible at the Presbyterian gathering in Detroit. They were wearing T-shirts that read, “Another Jew Supporting Divestment,” and were lobbying in favor of the divestment measure.
Rebecca Vilkomerson, the group’s executive director, called the organization’s lobbying success at the Presbyterian conference a result “of years of work within the Presbyterian Church. We were able to show how a greater number of American Jews are in favor of resolutions like this.”
Writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz this week, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former head of the Reform movement, said, “The Presbyterian leadership is not naïve. It knows how the Jewish community is organized. It knows who has a grassroots presence and who does not. And any suggestion that there is significant Jewish support for divestment or that Jewish Voice for Peace represents any more than a tiny sliver of Jewish opinion is simply preposterous.”
Vilkomerson would not comment on her group’s next steps, saying only that she had been in conversation with other mainline Protestant groups.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who spoke at the church’s General Assembly against the divestment proposal, said afterwards, “PC (USA) has by a very narrow margin chosen its preference for a policy of isolation rather than one of engagement. Whatever the intent of some who supported this resolution, this vote will be widely understood as endorsement of and support for the BDS Movement.”
Jewish American organizations that lobbied the Presbyterians to defeat the divestment measure included the Anti-Defamation League, JCPA, URJ and Stand With Us. An open anti-divestment letter, signed by more than 1,700 rabbis from all 50 states, stated that, “placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility, increases conflict and division instead of promoting peace.”
In a veiled reference to Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish leader, who asked for anonymity, described the Presbyterian leadership this way: “[Its] leaders seem to want to remake Judaism in the anti-Zionist image of some of their anti-Zionist Jewish friends.”
Other Christian denominations “have done serious soul-searching about Christian anti-Semitism,” and have taken steps in recent decades to improve interfaith relations, the leader said. “The Presbyterians pretend they have. They were observers in this process.”
The Presbyterian proposal included language that said is was “not to be construed” as “alignment with or endorsement of the global B.D.S.” movement. But observers said it is likely to be presented as a victory for the wider BDS movement, which is designed to put economic and political pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority in the Middle East peace process.
The Presbyterian resolution also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a two-state solution, encouraged interfaith dialogue and travel to the Holy Land and instructed the church to undertake “positive investment” in endeavors that advance peace and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.
Most Jewish leaders, however, were not convinced.
“Over the past ten years,” said ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, in a statement after the divestment vote, “PC (USA) leaders have fomented an atmosphere of open hostility to Israel within the church, promoted a one-sided presentation of the complex realities of the Middle East, and permitted the presentation of a grossly distorted image of the views of the Jewish community.”