Two Votes on Divestment

Recently we have seen two votes taken around divestment from Israel.

First, the student senate at the University of Washington overwhelming voted (59-8) to not support BDS and divest from companies doing business with Israel. This was an important victory because while the resolution was about economic divestment, because it was an academic institution, the specter of academic boycott–which I believe to be a particularly dangerous and misguided type of boycott–looms large.

Second, the Presbyterian Church USA unfortunately supported divestment by a close vote of 310-303.

The vote by the Presbyterians was interesting. On the one hand, the resolution was somewhat nuanced. They didn’t divest from Israeli companies, they divested from American companies doing business with Israel. (Let’s see how many churches swap out their HP printers). They also went out of their way to affirm the legitimacy of state of Israel, a two state solution as the resolution to the conflict and disavow any connection with the global BDS movement.

On the other hand, undercutting any nuance was a text calledZionism Unsettled, a terrible piece of propaganda that doesn’t separate legitimate criticism from demagoguery and draws erroneous conclusions about Judaism and Zionism. While the “official” leadership distanced itself from it, it still has a presence and impact and makes worse an already troubling decision. (For a great response to this text by a Presbyterian minister, see here.)

I had many thoughts following the PC(USA) vote, and some were articulated recently by Jane Eisner in a piece in theForward called Why Presbyterian Divestment Feels Like Anti-Semitism. In it she writes,

But divestment is not only about wielding punishment; it’s about shaping a moral conversation. Some of us feel as good about withholding our dollars as we do about spending them. The Presbyterians stressed that the vote was a statement about the occupation, not about Israel’s right to exist or, heaven forfend, their love of their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Ah, but it is. Because when they singled out only Israel’s actions, troubling though they may be, at a time when the region is aflame with tribal violence, they did hold one nation to a standard that others are not obliged or expected to meet. How is that not unfair and hypocritical? How does that not undermine Israel’s legitimacy?

I sometimes think the argument “What about China? What about Syria?”-i.e., raising other countries with bad human rights records who do not get targeted for divestment-is not the strongest one. But this situation to me feels different to me.

The BDSers I see most are those whose motivation I fail to grasp-who claim to fight for social justice yet only in certain instances, who speak out of both sides of their mouths when they speak of Israel’s legitimacy and harbor those who hold feelings of hatred toward Israel and Jews. And whose approach to Israel and history are much like the theology of religious fundamentalists-they hold the truth, there is only one right narrative, and they are unable to hear anything else.

But when a Christian denomination, ostensibly with discernment, passes a resolution about the only Jewish state, while other nations get a pass? I can only hope they had the perspective about what this might mean in our contemporary age, as well as fully grasping the history of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in this country and abroad, as well as the Jewish historical experience.

That’s why I found the Eisner piece was so interesting. Here is where I stand: I support Israel and I oppose the occupation. I support a two-state solution. And I oppose BDS because movements for justice should be affirming of all, rather than demonizing of some. I do hold Israel to a higher standard because I’m Jewish, a rabbi, and I want all members of the Jewish people to be upright when it comes to moral and ethical behavior. So I feel free to carefully and legitimately criticize when I feel I need to because I do it out of love and deep relationship. But when others do it?

[Transparency alert: I write these thoughts with trepidation because I am aware there is no other issue I have seen as a litmus test for Jewish belonging more than Israel. Israel touches at the core of one’s Jewish identity, whether one religious or not. I respect and honor that, and share it myself. But it also seems that even if I utter a whiff of criticism my integrity to serve as a rabbi (a rabbi!) is questioned.]

I don’t know what is going to happen next. Locally, Israel rarely comes up with my Christian clergy colleagues, and I foresee working alongside the local Presbyterian churches on issues of common concern as we have up to this point.

And while I do not underestimate the threat BDS raises, ultimately it appears the minor victories of BDS (in addition to UW and the other many losses) have remained just that-minor. The Olympia Food Co-op boycott did not spark a run of other boycotts. The decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli scholarship brought a round of denouncement and no copycats. Time will tell whether other Christian denominations follow the Presbyterians.

Rather than these minor gestures, I would like to see bold gestures: Hamas renouncing violence and recognizing Israel, whoever kidnapped those three young yeshiva students returning them unhurt, Netanyahu halting all settlement construction.

That is what will bring peace to the Holy Land. And for that I pray.

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