Arnold M. Eisen has worked as Jewish Theological Seminary's chancellor since 2007.

COMMENTARY: Presbyterian divestment vote, a blow to mutual respect

(RNS) The vote by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three U.S. companies doing business in Israel came exactly a week after news broke of the kidnapping of three yeshiva students (may their memory be a blessing) and at the same time that an Islamic terrorist faction was sweeping through Iraq.

Arnold M. Eisen has worked as Jewish Theological Seminary's chancellor since 2007.

Arnold M. Eisen has served as Jewish Theological Seminary's chancellor since 2007.

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Eyes open to the world, nerves on edge, our hearts open to those teenagers and the suffering on so many sides, my feelings are a mixture of sadness, pain, and acute worry for Israel, the Middle East, and the world.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) vote is but a minor addition to that mix. In the big picture, I can understand why people who care about peace between Israelis and Palestinians are frustrated by a peace process that seems to go nowhere, and may feel driven to drastic action. However, we must not ever let hope die.

That’s why I am prepared to assume that the majority of the Presbyterians who voted for divestment did so without malice. It is worth noting that the decision was made by a narrow margin of 310–303; the Presbyterian community is clearly passionately divided on this issue.

Delegates supporting the divestment resolution fell victim to two mistakes that are glaring and reprehensible.

First, they apparently believed that their vote to divest was fully compatible with the other principles affirmed in that same resolution: Israel’s right to exist, “positive investment” in endeavors that advance the cause of peace, and careful distinction between their action and the global "Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions" movement.

That distinction is not credible, and cannot be maintained. All of us, at times, want to have things both ways. We try to separate acts from consequences, or use the same words others use to mean something different. In this case, divestment is not supposed to mean divestment. Sanctions against Israel alone are not meant to signal particular animus against Israel, despite the fact that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has not proposed sanctions against other nations widely accused of human rights abuses that far exceed those leveled against Israel.

Second, the resolution’s accompanying declaration of love for the Jewish people is problematic: “In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.”

This despite the pleadings of rabbis and organizations who have long worked closely with the Presbyterian Church (USA); despite the fact that it is condescending in the extreme to act against the stated wishes of people you profess to love. I certainly don’t feel loved by this resolution, any more than any of us feels loved when members of another group tell us that they know better than we do what is right for us, and are prepared to help us see the light by causing us suffering.

I imagine that the “us” in that sentence causes the Presbyterian Church (USA) and others consternation. For religious Jews like me, the meaning of life is bound up in commitment to God’s commandments, pursuit of justice, and the increase of compassion in the world.

Why do I group “us” Jews -- both for and against expanded West Bank settlement, both in Israel and the Diaspora -- together collectively? Why is it important not to separate Jews who are not proponents of West Bank settlement -- like me -- of whom the divestors apparently approve, from Israel’s government and settlers, of whom they do not?

Jews are party to a covenant that established and requires not only a faith but a people, a people called to follow God’s direction in the private and public spheres. Zionism marks a return to a land to which Jewish hopes and obligations have been attached since our beginnings. Whether personally “religious” or not, Israeli Jews -- and many of us here in America -- know there cannot be Judaism in our day without Jews -- and no Jews without Judaism. We know too that there can be no survival or flourishing for Jews in our day without Israel. The Jewish people and Judaism require Israel.

Does that mean Israel requires the retention of the entire West Bank? I hope not.

The commitment to democracy enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence means I will always strive for a just settlement with Palestinians that allows them to have a homeland alongside mine, and allows Israeli Jews to preserve the democratic character of the State of Israel. I hope that Israeli voters will pressure their elected leaders to move decisively toward peace and be resolute in the defense of democracy. But I doubt the worldwide BDS movement, now joined by the Presbyterian Church (USA), will do anything to advance the cause of peace. It strikes a blow against mutual respect among religious communities in America, not a blow for mutual respect among national communities in Israel or Palestine.

(Arnold M. Eisen is the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. )



  1. Sickening. Since when is it a problem for people to put their money where their mouth is? If you have a moral issue with an investment you are in, you can either change your moral thinking or exit your investment. They chose to exit. Big deal.

  2. The mainline and liberal churces are NOT the friend of Israel. Period.

    Israel knows this. Hamas knows this. Al-Qaida knows this. Russia knows this. Probably even North Korea knows this. EVERYBODY knows this.

  3. People are not morally obligated to invest in Caterpillar, Motorola or Hewlett Packard if they don’t want to. Any argument to the contrary is deeply fascistic.

  4. Our U.S. tax dollars give billions to assist in the military defense of Israel as an ally. The PC(USA) members have a right to set a criteria not to invest tobacco, alcohol, military and more recently the prison industrial complex. Don’t be offended by a friend, who walks the talk, and tries to speak the prophetic truth in love. Most Presbyterians draw strength and inspiration from the Hebrew prophets. Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah would most likely concur with this course of action. The path of peace is not easy, but God never calls us to comfortable, only faithful.

  5. Lles, we may disagree on many other topics, but I agree with you on this one. You are right, they are putting their ideals into action. While people may debate whether the PCUSA move helps, or other details, I hope we can all agree that respect for each other is important, that anyone who causes avoidable harm should be punished, and that beliefs without action are useless.

  6. It wasn’t long ago the Christian fundamentalist churches were openly anti-Semitic. Many still are. If not for their frothing at the mouth hate of Muslims, and a market for tourism to the Holy Land, they still would be.

  7. To appreciate the action taken by the PCUSA one needs to understand the context in which it was taken, One, the PCUSA was fully aware of the membership of the BDS movement and the benefit it would obtain from the vote. They added their support to a number of anti-semitic groups. Two, the study guide offered on the PCUSA website on the divestment issue was a document entitled Zionism Unsettled. By the time of the meeting it had been sufficiently exposed as a one sided anti-semitic document that the PCUSA publicly stated it wasn’t the official position of the denomination although it was the study guide offered on their website. After the vote it was taken off the website since it could not be defended. Third, the PCUSA was offered a chance to put their money where their mouth was with an amendment that would take the money withdrawn from the 3 corporations and invest it in businesses in Israel. They declined. Many have stated because of a concern they wouldn’t obtain the same return as they were getting on the corporate investments. I understand the concern expressed about the vote especially when it’s set in context.

  8. Mr Eisen:

    The first problem is that you are trying to portray a political and human-rights issue as a religious one. Zionism is not supported by all Jewish people; indeed, some Jewish sects oppose it. Israel is a country, and it has policies that are determined by politics. Religion has precious little to do with it. Religion does not explain why many many Jewish people have come to support divestment, and even BDS, in order to generate the pressure for Israel to halt its human-rights abuses. But it is obvious why someone in your situation would want to ignore that and still portray a political issue as religious: mere tactics. There is a long tradition of attempts to conflate criticism with anti-semitism, even though doing that erodes the meaning of actual anti-semitism, and banalises and thus facilitates all forms of prejudice. And what does that do, in turn? … while you claim to be committed to increasing compassion in the world, you actually DEcrease it. That is why it is hypocritical of you to attempt to make this a religious issue. It is noteworthy that your article does not acknowledge Palestinians’ suffering under human rights abuses that result from Israeli policy that the Presbyterians have decided to firmly dissociate themselves with. I for example had a childhood in Apartheid South Africa; I love the country, but the policy was a disgrace, so we boycotted for years. It is possible to love the country one boycotts. Or would you perhaps be saying that Apartheid should have been left as a decision for the South African government and that there should not have been boycotts against Apartheid? It would be most interesting if you would like to say that. So if you won’t say Apartheid was good, and won’t say boycotts against it were bad, then how do you criticise the Presbyterians? The problem is that divestment follows disenchantment and concern; and Israel had decades of time to think clearly of “~God’s commandments, justice, and compassion”; but it obviously didn’t because there are still soldiers firing rubber-coated lumps of steel at peaceful protesters, shooting children with tear gas canisters fired as projectile weapons, beating up kids, bulldozing people’s homes, destroying their property, and dealing death and destruction on a very grand scale even as of these last few weeks. Israel had its chance, and having spurned it and having rejected criticism, it now faces BDS and other divestments, and here you are still plugging for the engine that generates systematic human rights abuse, and you calling yourself “religious” all the while. Either you are quite confused, or you are absolutely and clearly aware of every thing you wrote.

    Your article’s title “Presbyterian divestment vote, a blow to mutual respect” is suggestive of mental compartmentalisation: nowhere in your article do you show even the littlest scintilla of awareness — let alone respect — that would require you to acknowledge the human rights violations that were the impetus for the PC/USA divestment from 3 companies profiting from the Occupation.

    How is it that you style this divestment decision as “a blow to mutual respect”, while you utterly ignore the much more serious background, that all WB settlements are on stolen land, and indeed most of modern-day Israel is lands forcibly taken from over 700,000 Palestinians who in 1948 were forcibly driven from their homes, farms, villages, business, lands … and that property then simply taken by Israel? Shooting people, driving them out of their homes, and then bombing and arresting them with fair regularity for decades after that … wouldn’t you consider that to be just a bit of a teensy weensy blow to mutual respect? You want respect, but in your article you sure do not give it.

    Here is your big difficulty, that I surmise directs your thoughts and tactics: Jewish property stolen by the Nazis are (properly) still considered (even by the government of Israel) the property of their inheritors. Fair and proper, right? Absolutely it is. But then, surely by the same token, by the same rule, most of Israel still belongs to whoever owned it in 1948 and did not willingly sell it, yes? That is your problem. You have probably known all your life it was your problem, that you have in Israel been walking on stolen land, and whenever you visited settlements that you were walking on stolen land. I would surmise that you never wanted to be strongly opposed to settlements and the human rights abuses of the West Bank etc. simply because you knew that the abuses and wrongs of and from settlements are not easily distinguishable from the wrongs of 1948, and you naturally fear the can of worms that opens up. One part of your mind says (you claim to be a religious Jew) Torah, the other half says Land; but the Land part doesn’t listen to the Torah part and also doesn’t tell the Torah part what it has been doing. So the Torah part does not know what the Land part did, and thus cannot tell you that what the Land part did was wrong. That kind of mental compartmentalisation would be one hypothesis to explain how you, who claim to be a religious Jew, can write this article that ignores key facts that should be addressed by your declared principles, and think these things without realising how wrong they are in terms of the religion you claim to follow. But both compartments hear whispers, and the Land part has a fear that the Torah part doesn’t. The Torah part discovers you are in the West Bank, tells you that you should not be. The Land part suggests ‘Let’s agree to not keep the “entire”* thing’, hoping the Torah part doesn’t notice that the word “entire” is a loophole that just guts the statement of any substance.
    [[* Eisen: “Does that mean Israel requires the retention of the entire West Bank? I hope not.” ]]

    Instead of trying to find thin reasons to object to what the Presbyterians did (with what is, after all, their own money!), you would invest your time better by considering why they did it. And acknowledge that “why” in anything else you decide to write. Instead of writing a condescending and arrogant article disrespectful to Presbyterians, write to your own politicians and tell them to read the Torah, e.g. Micah 2 (1-3), and to seek peace with their hearts.

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