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The case against divesting from Israel

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The "divestment from companies working In Israel" bandwagon is rolling again in several Protestant denominations, among them my own, the Presbyterian Church (USA). In one way, that's a good thing. It does ask us to pay attention to Israel and the West Bank/Gaza, when the Israeli government wants to focus our attention on Iran, and as a side effect get us to ignore the ongoing travesty of the occupation.

Nonetheless, divestment as a tactic for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a bad idea. It's a feel-good answer to a complex situation. It robs us of any meaningful role in advocacy for peace and justice. It puts in jeopardy our long-term relationships with American Jews and Arabs.

Divestment is more about making us feel like we're doing something than it is about helping open avenues for fruitful discussion. It reduces the complexity to a simple equation: Divestment equals justice.

The root complexity is the reality that there are two narratives in the region, and each side stakes its credibility on being the bigger victim. Both sides point a finger at the other for being the bad guy, the initiator. Both versions rely on a selective reading of the facts. "He hit me first," as any parents knows, rarely gets at the truth.

The complexity comes in the realization that none of the Jews I know fairly well support the settlements, or the Wall, or the occupation. They believe the current policies are destructive for Palestinians, Israelis and the future of a democratic Israel. (To see a cogent summary, visit the website of Americans for Peace Now, http://peacenow.org/; or J Street, http://jstreet.org/.)

The complexity lies in the fact that Presbyterians and other denominations for years have declared support for the nation of Israel yet again are flirting with a policy that can easily be read by both Israelis and Palestinians as implied support for the dissolution of Israel. For example, the "right of return" of Palestinians, an explicit demand in the "Bethlehem Call," a Palestinian Christian document, would mean in a relatively short time that Palestinians would outnumber Jews in Israel and could outvote them.

The complexity lies in the fact that Palestinian moderates, like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, see their future not in grand gestures but in day-to-day investment in the Palestinian people: infrastructure, education, business. Of course, they continue to demand justice from the Israelis, especially the end of the occupation. But at the same time, they look for seemingly insignificant moves that actually make a difference, like the right to create banks.

The complexity lies in the fact that there is no living Palestinian who has not lost family or friends to the violence. Guess what: The same is true in Israel — and I daresay among American Jews and American Palestinians. No one makes progress by denying or minimizing the suffering of the other.

The second problem with divestment is that it effectively removes our Presbyterian voice from the table. Divestment means mostly the Palestinians (some Palestinians) will listen to us, while many (not all) Jews will dismiss us. Does fruitful engagement come from limiting our conversation to those who agree with us? Presbyterians cannot expect a one-sided dialogue to bear much fruit.

Finally, long-term relationships are at stake. I'm thinking mostly of efforts in the U.S. to create relationships among Christians, Muslims and Jews. It's not that my friends who are rabbis will totally cut me off. But they will wonder what kind of church I belong to and what message it sends for me to remain part of a church that retreats behind such a simplistic solution. It means that their congregants who hear the screams from the Jewish right denouncing all mainline Protestants — and maybe all Christians — as untrustworthy will have a harder time offering a countervailing view. The unfortunate truth is, we tend to stay in our own ghettos. It's part of a larger, unhealthy syndrome of isolationism. How can it help the relationships among Jews, Christians and Muslims if we never sit together?

Both narratives at work in Israel and Palestine trade in victimhood. Like it or not, divestment simply feeds the sense of victimhood on both sides. It vindicates the Palestinian sense of violation, and feeds the paranoia of the Israelis.

The harder way, I believe, is the way of continuing to demand that both sides must come to the table if there is ever to be a lasting peace with justice. It could include maintaining a small investment in Caterpillar,Hewlett-Packardand Motorola, (companies on the divestment list) and demanding (through shareholder resolutions and speaking at annual meetings) that such companies invest in the West Bank and Gaza. Why? Because the real audience is not management but shareholders. A little homework to demonstrate how one-sided investment hurts overall return wouldn't hurt.

Engagement could include direct investment by our church in initiatives to promote justice and collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians, such as "Profits/Prophets for Peace" sponsored by Auburn Seminary. Or we could go a more traditional route and invest in the Rasmala Palestine Equity Fund, or the Palestine Growth Capital Fund, or Sadara Ventures. The Palestinian stock exchange now lists 47 companies.

Engagement should include learning from both Palestinian and Israeli peace and justice groups about the most fruitful ways to proceed. The popular practice of taking groups to the region should continue — with meaningful time spent on both sides of the wall.

Surely there are creative ways to remain engaged. Thankfully, it is not victimhood that saves or brings justice. It is the mercy of God that saves and brings justice.

I vote for the harder route.

James W. Dale is pastor of the Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church in Towson. His email is jdale@bmwpc.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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