Divestment. It sounds like something accountants and economics majors might think about, not the stuff of political or religious debate. But divestment, or withdrawing investment funds, is being promoted as a tool to punish certain companies doing business with Israel and thereby pressure Israel itself. This week (June 14-21) the Presbyterian Church (USA) or PC(USA), will consider divestment at its annual General Assembly, as it seems to do whenever it convenes (http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/ga221-middle-east-faq.pdf, accessed 6/12/14). Two years ago, representing the UMJC, I helped to draft an anti-divestment statement along with leaders of the MJAA, IAMCS, and IMJA. This blog is based on that statement.
Divestment advocates claim to be working for justice in the Middle East, but this tactic violates justice. Even though the language of specific divestment proposals, including those this week, will often sound moderate, it belies a biased and unbalanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Divestment is inherently unjust for several reasons:
1. Divestment joins the larger BDS movement in using the inaccurate, unfair, and inflammatory “apartheid” label against Israel as part of a larger strategy of discrediting and dismantling the Jewish state (http://www.bdsmovement.net/call#top).
Israel’s military presence on the West Bank is indeed a military presence, with attendant inconveniences and indignities for the resident population. It is a temporary situation and pressure may legitimately be applied to both sides to find a peaceful resolution. Framing Israel’s policy in Judea and Samaria as “apartheid,” and pushing for immediate and unconditional Israeli withdrawal indicates either an ignorance of why Israel is still there, or a reckless disregard of Israeli lives and security. For example, the security fence was created after years of suicide bomb attacks within the Israeli green line. It does place severe restrictions on innocent Palestinians, but it is a grim necessity after years of unrelenting attacks. A premature removal of this protection does not address the issues of the conflict, and would only bring a return of the status quo that inspired the barrier in the first place.
2. Divestment unjustly frames the Jewish state of Israel as a colonial incursion, along the lines of the white European settlement in South Africa.
The BDS movement and potential participants like PC(USA) demonstrate that they respect other national movements, including that among the Palestinians, but not the national restoration movement of the Jewish people. Other groups are entitled to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland and to seek self-determination there, but not the Jewish people. This is doubly unjust when we consider that the Jewish claim to and presence within the Land of Israel is more ancient and more deeply rooted than the parallel claims of other nationalities in the region. The biblical promises that grant the land west of the Jordan River to the Jewish people in perpetuity, too numerous to list here, do not preclude territorial compromise for the sake of peace. They do make it inappropriate, however, to accuse Israel of “occupying” land specifically granted to the Jewish people from ancient times, and inhabited by Jewish people throughout the centuries. For example, the “occupied” territory includes one of four ancient holy cities of Jewish tradition, Hebron, which is the burial site of the Hebrew patriarchs, the original capital of the Jewish kingdom under King David, and a continual habitation of Jewish people for many centuries. Israel may need to withdraw from these territories for the sake of peace, but such withdrawal must be part of a wider and viable peace process.
3. Divestment unjustly ignores the historical context of Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
Jordan, which previously held this territory, as well as Egypt, which held the Gaza strip, both signed peace treaties with Israel that did not entail return of these territories to them. The Palestinian authority, which now claims to represent the occupants of these territories, agreed to a peace process with Israel in 1993, and then rejected its culmination in 2000, when Israel offered a generous settlement that would have established an independent Palestinian state. Several attempts to rekindle peace talks after that rejection have failed, and terror attacks from these territories have continued; hence, Israel’s continued presence there. Failure to curtail terrorist violence undermines the credibility of the Palestinian Authority as a partner for peace. Hope for an end to this tragic conflict requires that Palestinian leadership unequivocally recognize Israel’s right to exist. To ignore this imperative, and the historical context of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria, as the BDS movement does, undermines its call for justice.
4. Finally, divestment frequently draws upon classic Christian supersessionism to defend its position.
Supersessionism is the view that the promises and blessings spoken throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament in Christian Bibles, no longer apply to the Jewish people. In this view, the Jewish people, termed “Israel” in the Hebrew Scriptures, have lost any unique standing before God, because of corporate rejection of Jesus as Messiah, and are replaced by the church. Therefore, the land promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and reiterated throughout the Torah and the Prophets, are no longer in effect, and the modern Jewish return to the land of Israel lacks any biblical basis. This error is not only theological, but also a matter of injustice. Supersessionism unjustly denies the Jewish people the values and hopes which they have faithfully borne for centuries. It has proven throughout history to be a source of anti-Semitic oppression and violence in many Christian lands. True justice will seek to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without stripping either side of legitimacy or dignity.
Divestment is unjust because it undermines Israel’s just claim to legitimacy as a Jewish state. Criticism of specific Israeli policies is legitimate, but Christian religious bodies need to be careful to raise concerns without buying into the whole apartheid, supersessionist narrative that the BDS movement promotes.
I recognize the efforts of Christian denominations since the Holocaust, including PC(USA) to promote understanding and good will toward the Jewish people. Divestment from Israel, however, only serves to diminish the possibility of genuine negotiations for peace, to encourage violence and extremism, and to damage the relationship between the church and the Jewish community. Divestment efforts insert partisanship into an enterprise best governed by this word from Moses, “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (Lev. 19:15). Most of all, the divestment initiative ignores the words of Scripture that foretell a Jewish return to the land of Israel after centuries of exile: “For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land” (Ezek. 36:24).
The UMJC has again joined forces with the International Messianic Jewish Alliance, the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, and the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues to stand with Israel. See our statement here: UMJC.org.