Calling Presbyterians “Anti-Semites” Hasn’t Silenced The Church

The companies from which the Presbyterians divested play an important role in Israel’s occupation policies.


Allan Brownfeld Global News Centre

(WASHINGTON DC)  In June, the Presbyterian Church (USA) became the most prominent religious group in the United States to endorse divestment as a protest against Israeli policies toward Palestinians. The church’s General Assembly, meeting in Detroit, voted 310-303 to sell stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions, companies whose products Israel uses in the occupied territories.

The Presbyterian Church is the largest yet to endorse divestment at a churchwide convention.  The measure that was passed not only called for divestment but also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a two-state solution, encouraged interfaith dialogue and travel to the Holy  Land, and instructed the church to undertake “positive investment” in endeavors that advance peace and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

The church also said that the motion was “not to be construed” as “alignment with or endorsement of the global B.D.S.(boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement.”  Heath Rada, the church’s moderator, who was leading the proceedings, said of the vote:  “In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.”

Large American Jewish organizations lobbied the Presbyterians to defeat the divestment vote.  More than 1,700 rabbis signed an open letter saying that “placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility, increases conflict and division instead of promoting peace.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of the Reform Jewish movement, addressed the assembly and offered to broker a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the church’s two top leaders so they could convey the church’s concern about the occupation, on the condition that the divestment measure was defeated.  According to THE NEW YORK TIMES (June 21, 2014), “That offer appears to have backfired, with some saying afterward that it felt both manipulative and ineffectual, given what they perceive as Mr. Netanyahu’s approval of more settlements in disputed areas and lack of enthusiasm for peace negotiations.”

The TIMES reported that,”Of more influence was the presence at the church’s convention all week of Jewish activists, many of them young, in black T-shirts with the slogan ‘Another Jew Supporting Divestment.’  Many of them were with Jewish Voice for Peace, a small but growing organization that promotes divestment and works with Palestinian and Christian groups on the left.”

Rabbi Alissa Wise, director of Jewish Voice for Peace, spent a week inside the convention center and spoke at a prayer service.  She said that divestment can serve a constructive purpose.  “To me this helps Palestinians build their power,” she said, “so that Israel is convinced, not by force, but by the global consensus that something has to change.”

Two smaller U.S. religious groups have divested in protest of Israeli policies in the occupied territories:  the Friends Fiduciary Corp., which manages assets for U.S. Quakers, and the Mennonite Central Committee.  Earlier in June, the pension board of the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant group in the U.S., revealed plans to sell holdings in G4S, which provides security equipment and has contracts with Israel’s prison system.

The companies from which the Presbyterians divested play an important role in Israel’s occupation policies.

Carerpillar sells heavy equipment used by the Israeli government in military and police actions to demolish Palestinian homes and agricultural lands.  It also sells heavy equipment used in the occupied Palestinian territory for the construction of illegal Israeli settlements, roads solely used by Israeli settlers and the construction of the separation wall extending across the 1967 “Green Line” into East Jerusalem and the West Bank.  The number of outstanding demolition orders in East Jerusalem alone has been estimated at up to 20,000.

Motorola Solutions provides  an integrated communications system, known as “Mt. Rose,” which is used by the Israeli government for military communications.  It also provides ruggedized cell phones to the Israeli army which are utilized in the occupied territories.
Hewlett-Packard provides biometric ID equipment to monitor only Palestinians at several checkpoints in the West Bank.  West Bank Palestinians, who number 2.4 million, are required to submit to lengthy waits as well as the mandatory biometric scanning, while Israelis and other passport holders transit without scanning or comparable delays.

The SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE (June 29, 2014) discussed Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) role in Israel as the lead article in its business section.  HP, a local Bay Area company, it reported, is the target “of an international campaign” that “has emerged to pressure Israel by persuading investors to dump shares of companies that do business with the government or operate in the disputed territories.

Unbeknownst to many Americans, the Palo Alto computing giant makes the high-tech identity cards Israel uses at occupied checkpoints in the disputed West Bank territory Israel captured in 1967 but Palestinians claim as their own country.  Until recently, none of this attracted much attention, partly because information technology is kind of boring but also because the U.S. is a strong ally of Israel…Whether you side with Israelis or Palestinians, this much is true:  A Silicon Valley Titan has parked itself on top of a ticking public relations time bomb…”

The idea that anyone in America, let alone a respected church group, would be dumping stock to protest Israeli policies would have been considered unthinkable only a few years ago.  This is what makes the Presbyterian Church’s decision so significant.
Shortly before the Presbyterian vote, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed the church in an open letter:  “The sustainability of Israel  as a homeland for the Jewish people has always been dependent on its ability to deliver justice
to the Palestinians.  I know firsthand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation.  The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed.”

The response from the organized Jewish community to the Presbyterian vote was swift, and the rhetoric extreme.  In a tweet (June 22, 2014), American Jewish Committee Global declared that, “All you need to know about Presbyterian divestment step against Israel—extremist David Duke endorses it.”  Rob Jacobs of the right-wing Zionist group StandWithUs declared, “Incredible!  The former head of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke endorsed and applauds Presbyterian Divestiture.”  THE ATLANTIC’s Jeffrey Goldberg went further and declared twice, without any substantiation whatever, that David Duke “claims credit for devising Presbyterian Church strategy.”

David Duke, who had nothing whatever to do with the Presbyterian vote, must be pleased with the publicity Jewish groups have given him.  Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called the divestment action “outrageous” and said it would have a “devastating impact” on relations between the national church and mainstream Jewish groups.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called the Presbyterian vote “disgraceful.”  Jane Eisen, editor of THE FORWARD (July 4, 2014) wrote from Israel:  “…when Jewish treatment of Palestinians is judged worse than the way any other dominant group treats a minority, when it is deemed worthy of unique sanction…how can I believe that this isn’t about the Jews?  And that my Presbyterian friends, is anti-Semitism.”

Jonathan Tobin, writing in COMMENTARY (June 25, 2014) accused the Presbyterians of  allying themselves “with haters like David Duke” and declared that “radicals tainted by anti-Semitism have hijacked its (Presbyterian Church) leadership…this move was motivated by intolerance and hate.”  In its official statement, the American Jewish Committee said the Presbyterian divestment action was “driven by hatred of Israel.”

While the organized Jewish community continues to charge anyone who criticizes Israel with “anti-Semitism,” this trivialization of genuine bigotry is difficult to maintain in the face of the increasing number of Jewish voices to be heard defending the Presbyterian decision, sometimes even lamenting that the church did no go further.

Writing in TIKKUN, Cantor Michael Davis, a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace  Rabbinical Council, declares that, “I, as an Israeli national who served three years in the IDF, and who has served the Jewish community in Chicago for over 20 years, support the right of our Presbyterian friends to freely explore their conscience on divesting from American companies that benefit from Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank…I believe, along with a growing number of Jews and Israelis that BDS is the best non-violent option to stop the downward spiral to inevitable violence…Under international and American law, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is illegal.  Any business involved in the occupation is therefore illegal too…The Israeli government argues that the occupation is necessary in order to keep Israel safe.  How does building Jewish cities on stolen Palestinian land or the daily harassment and humiliation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians make Israel more safe?  All indications are that antagonizing Palestinians imperils Israeli lives.”

In Cantor Davis’s view, “The law does not recognize Israel’s perceived self-interest as legitimate grounds for making another population suffer.  Jewish tradition teaches the same lesson.  On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, we read of the education of the prophet Jonah.  Jonah was commanded by God to prophesy to the city of Nineveh:  let them repent their evil ways and be saved.  But Jonah boards a boat to escape the mission.  Rashi on the first verse of the Book of Jonah explains Jonah’s thinking:  ‘The non-Jews will likely repent.  If I prophesy to them, they will turn to God.  And so, I will have shown Israel in a poor light since the Jews do not heed the words of the prophets.’  Jonah was willing to let a non-Jewish city be destroyed, fearing what  saving them might mean for the Jews.  The ancient rabbis selected this reading for Yom Kippur to teach us that even when saving others in immediate danger now may imperil Jews later, we must choose to save our fellow human beings.  If that is the reason for the occupation, the Jewish tradition rejects that argument.”

M.J. Rosenberg, writing in TIKKUN, states that, “There are hundreds of thousands , maybe a few million good Israelis who are desperate for outside help to end the occupation.  This (Presbyterian) resolution provides hope…The Presbyterian resolution targets only the occupation which is fair and right.  I believe that being pro-Israel requires opposing the occupation.  The resolution is pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian and, above all, pro-peace.”

After the Presbyterian vote, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) declared:  “JVP congratulates and celebrates…the vote…The church has a long history of ethical investment choices and it is a strong signal of its commitment to universal human rights that it chose to divest.  This is a turning point…The decision will have real consequences, sending a message to Palestinians that the ongoing violations of their human rights is worthy of action on the global stage, and to companies and the Israeli government that the occupation is both morally and economically untenable.”

Dries Coetzee, a church commissioner originally from South Africa, thanked the church for having helped to liberate Afrikaners like himself from their role in apartheid through its divestment action in 1985.  He called upon the church to do the same for Israelis.

Responding to FORWARD editor Jane Eisner’s attack upon the Presbyterians, MONDOWEISS (June 25, 2014) editor Philip Weiss wrote that, “As for the absence of political freedom in Syria and Egypt, Americans and Jews have a special relationship to Palestine.  Israeli Jews established apartheid there with our complicity.  What means does Eisner advocate for ending apartheid?  The occupation has now lasted almost 50 years, and the creation of Israel involved ethnic cleansing and dispossession that has never been addressed (decades after Jews received reparations from Germany).  As Eisner says, ‘divestment is not only about wielding punishment;  it’s about shaping a moral conversation.’  O.K., let’s have it.  And if you’re the liberal Jewish newspaper, are you making any room for anti-Zionist Jews?”

The idea that American Jews are united in support of the Israeli government, whatever it may do, is one which mainstream Jewish groups have long promoted, along with the notion that  challenging the Israeli government constitutes “anti-Semitism.”  It has been an offensive tactic to intimidate open discussion and debate.  The Presbyterians, along with the Quakers, the Mennonites and many others have shown that they no longer fear such false attacks.  And the evidence that many Jews stand with them is growing.  From the Open Hillel movement on college campuses which is challenging the censorship of Jewish speakers who are critical of Israel, including Israelis, to the strong reaction against the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations which recently denied membership to J Street, to the recent Pew study which showed that more and more American Jews, particularly young people, are alienated from Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, it becomes clear that Jews are of many points of view with regard to Israe.

As Cantor Michael Davis of Jewish Voice for Peace wrote:  “Christians, like Jews, have a special interest in what happens in the Holy Land and a special responsibility to its peoples.  The Presbyterian Church should be free to debate the issues on their merits without fear of being branded anti-Semites or any of the other harsh responses that have been circulating in the Jewish community.  Let us show our Christian neighbors the same respect that we expect and enjoy from them.  Hillel said:  Love your neighbor as yourself, this is the whole Torah.”



Allan C. Brownfeld received his B.A. degree from the College of William and Mary, his J.D. degree from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary and his M.A. in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland. He has served on the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland.

The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, Mr. Brownfeld has written for such newspapers as THE HOUSTON PRESS, THE RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH, THE WASHINGTON EVENING STAR and THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER. For many years he wrote three columns a week for such newspapers as THE PHOENIX GAZETTE, THE MANCHESTER UNION LEADER, and THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER. His weekly column appeared for more than a decade in ROLL CALL, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in such journals as THE YALE REVIEW, THE TEXAS QUARTERLY, THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW, ORBIS and MODERN AGE.

Mr. Brownfeld served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and was the author of that committee’s 250-page study of the New Left. He has also served as Assistant to the Research Director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to such members of Congress as Reps. Phil Crane (R-Il) and Jack Kemp (R-NY) and to the Vice President of the United States.

He is a former editor of THE NEW GUARD and PRIVATE PRACTICE, the journal of the Congress of County Medical Societies and has served as a Contributing Editor AMERICA’S FUTURE and HUMAN EVENTS. He served as Washington correspondent for the London-based publications, JANE’S ISLAMIC AFFAIRS ANALYST and JANE’S TERRORISM REPORT. His articles regularly appear in newspapers and magazines in England, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and other countries. You can write to Allan at [email protected]

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