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Presbyterians should confront divestment advocates bias
June 9th, 2006
The fight against divestment will flare again next week when the Presbyterian Church (USA) convenes in Birmingham, Ala., for its biennial general assembly.
On the table will be a handful of initiatives seeking to retreat from the churchs 2004 decision to impose economic sanctions against Israel; but likelier to pass is a proposal to continue divestment, but turn the entire matter over to a special committee.
And many Jewish leaders are at a turning point, as well. Dialogue with the Presbyterians has gone nowhere, they believe, but confrontation seems to bolster anti-Israel hardliners in the church.
More and more Jewish leaders see a lose-lose situation. The Presbyterians, they believe, may be a lost cause, with leaders so determined to hit at Israel that they are willing to overlook all the evidence that their actions will hurt, not help the cause of peace.
The fight against divestment has taken place on numerous fronts. Major Jewish groups have privately appealed to Presbyterian leaders and publicly argued about divestments negative effect on peace efforts in the region.
Jewish community relations councils have worked quietly with local Presbyterian groups, trying to convey just how destructive it has been to Jewish-Christian relations.
Nothing has worked
Joint missions have traveled to Israel and the Palestinian areas. Jewish peace groups have weighed in, arguing that divestment can only add to the regions bitter polarization.
Jewish leaders have cautiously encouraged anti-divestment activists within the church.
Some major Jewish groups chose public confrontation, others quiet interfaith dialogue. All have pointed out that divestment threatens traditional domestic coalitions as well as Middle East peace efforts.
Nothing has worked. While a significant faction within the church rejects divestment and, according to some accounts, most Presbyterians in the pews are only faintly aware of the issue, a cadre of church leaders remains determined to strike at Israel.
Divestment advocates have come under the influence of Palestinian Christians who reject the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem is a major force in the divestment movement and organizer of radical divestment conferences around the world. Its leaders say their ultimate goal is one state, two peoples, three religions.
They sometimes use language echoing themes of traditional religious anti-Semitism calling Israeli actions in the territories crucifixions, for example.
The pro-divestment cadre acts as if nothing has changed since the 1980s, when Israel rejected the idea of a Palestinian state and pursued a policy of aggressive settlement expansion.
Nothing casts as much doubt on the motives of divestment advocates as the timing of their efforts. They began just as Israel, after four years of raging Palestinian terrorism, began looking for ways to pull out of most of the territories. This process began with last years Gaza withdrawal and is continuing with the planned withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
Then theres the matter of Hamas. Next weeks divestment debate will take place as the terror group solidifies its hold on power in Gaza and the West Bank. But the absence of a negotiating partner that accepts the idea of negotiations, too, seems like an irrelevancy to the Presbyterian leaders.
With the exception of a tiny fringe that the Presbyterians will fete at next weeks meeting in a shamefully false attempt to portray the Jewish community as divided on the issue, most Jewish groups on the left oppose divestment as harmful to peace efforts.
The Presbyterians claim they want to heal the regions conflicts. In fact, their actions are hugely polarizing in a part of the world that already has precious little middle ground.
Divestment undermines support for peace efforts, reinforces the hard right in Israel and encourages the Palestinians to believe they can keep the backing of influential outsiders even if they continue supporting terrorists.
The Presbyterians say they are supporting their Palestinian Christian brethren, In fact, they are endangering them by actions that boost the Islamic extremists who will ultimately vent rage against Christians as well as Jews.
All of these are rational arguments, but they will undoubtedly be just background noise at next weeks Presbyterian gathering.
Church leaders have heard it all before. Yet many remain committed to this counter-productive action because, in the end, this isnt about finding a way to contribute to peace, but about lashing out at a Jewish state they reject and at American Jews they see as tainted by their support for Israel.
Until the church confronts that underlying bias, dialogue over Israel will be fruitless because the pro-divestment leaders arent telling the truth when they say all they want is a fair solution to the Middle East mess.
Until the Presbyterians recognize the motives of divestments most ardent supporters, they will be a force for division and conflict, not for the peace they claim to seek.
Former Madisonian James D. Besser has been Washington correspondent for the New York Jewish Week and the Baltimore Jewish Times since 1987.