(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.
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. )
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