Presbyterians and the Middle East

After talking about Palestinians on Monday and Israelis on Tuesday, we focused today on the history of Presbyterians in the Middle East. After a quick review of our denominational history in the region (which began in the nineteenth century), we turned to the current engagements that will be debated at the 221st General Assembly next month. Specifically, we talked at length about the merits and problems of “BDS”: the non-violent witness of economic boycotts, divestments and sanctions.

A recent example of BDS was approved in 2012 by the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA). At that time, commissioners approved a boycott of products produced within illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The other nations of the world have never formally accepted Israel’s seizure of the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the “West Bank” areas of the Judean hill country during the Six Day War of 1967. Much of this land (the West Bank especially), includes some of the most coveted natural resources in the region. The occupation has largely smothered the economic viability of the Palestinians who live there. However, whenever the UN has called for the removal of Israeli defense forces and settlements from these lands, which are collectively known as the “occupied territories,” Israel has consistently ignored such resolutions. Some illegal settlements have expanded into factories and other economic enterprises. In 2012, Presbyterians affirmed that the biblical call to social justice precludes us from supporting the illegal exploitation of any person with our purchases or tacit acceptance.

This summer, the General Assembly will consider another aspect of BDS: divestment. Those who manage our pension funds and other investments have determined that three companies (Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions) may be profiting from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. These are, admittedly, more difficult cases than Israeli companies setting up shop in the occupied territories. These are legitimate, successful American businesses that offer a wide variety of products that have nothing to do with Israel. These companies make the argument that they cannot and should not be held responsible for the ways their products are used after they are sold. Such statements remind me a lot of the defenses offered by gun manufacturers. The corollary argument for Caterpillar, for example, would be: “our tractors don’t oppress Palestinians; our customers do.” Many good people find such arguments to be convincing. Others critics question whether these economic strategies will have any real effect on Israeli policy. However we frame the debate, there seems to be much less agreement over this type of BDS than was found for the 2012 boycott of illegally-produced West Bank products.

At the end of the day, we cannot control Israeli policy, nor can we dictate the decisions made in corporate boardrooms. What we can control is what we do with our own money. You may hear that these divestment decisions seem arbitrary, like they have come up out of nowhere. The truth is, they haven’t come from nowhere. These proposals are, in many respects, the logical conclusion of things Presbyterians have been saying for a long time, such as:
* that we should use positive, proactive strategies to achieve a just and peaceful two-state solution in the Middle East (something every General Assembly has affirmed since 2004);
* that we should pursue “phased, selective divestment” from companies that are unjustly profiting from illegal activities in the Middle East (which we first said in 2004);
* that the PC(USA) should only invest in companies engaged in “peaceful pursuits” in the occupied territories (first approved in 2006);
* that the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) should be empowered to achieve this goal (2006); and
* that we are “never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another” (Romans 14:13), and that we are called to “seek peace and pursue it” (1 Peter 3:11) (let’s just say that these affirmations have been around a while).

As I see it, this debate is not really about Israel, or Palestine, or Caterpillar, or any other company. It is about us — about what we are willing to do, and what we can no longer do, if we really want to promote justice and stand up for God’s people. We have been talking about this kind of action for many years. Yes, there are costs to divestment. Yes, there are some lingering questions about whether it is the right action at the right time. But there is another way to look at divestment, one that was expressed eloquently by one of our speakers earlier in the week. A vote for divestment, he said, will not solve the entire problem. Far more will have to be done. But it would be a significant symbol — an overt swing for justice that would begin to “chip away” at a few of the stones in the road, a few of the stumbling blocks that litter and hinder the path to peace.

We have been talking about this kind of non-violent witness for at least a decade. Perhaps it’s time we took a swing — and see what God might do with it.

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