The Presbyterian Church Breaks Old Taboos

BEIRUT — A significant shift in political dynamics related to the Middle East took place in Detroit last weekend where the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to withdraw its investments in three companies that profit from sales to organizations involved in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands (Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard). This is a significant milestone on the path towards a critical destination that has long made Palestinian-Israeli peace-making impossible: holding Israeli occupation practices accountable to universally accepted standards of law and morality, and drawing a clear line between Western support for Israel in its pre-1967 borders and the unacceptable colonial and Apartheid-like practices of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
The church decision will not have any significant impact on the companies themselves, or bring about any changes in Israeli government behavior. Its significance is in its moral and political actions that highlight the ugly realities of the Israeli occupation, and also in fostering serious debate about Israel and Palestine in the United States. It has broken the pro-Israel stranglehold on publicly discussing the behavior and the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians according to a single, universal standard of conduct.
This vote is the culmination of nearly a decade of open discussion within the Presbyterian Church on the issue of how the moral foundations of the church should shape its actions in society, especially in situations of conflict, occupation and man-made suffering. Pro-Israeli groups have vehemently opposed the divestment decision and all the debate that took place around it in recent years. I watched this process close-up two years ago when I was invited by the church to speak in favor of the divestment motion. I was shocked most of all by the scare tactics, frequent lies and ferocity of the pro-Israeli advocates, both Jewish and Christian. These same groups are working overtime now to discredit the church’s decision, by claiming that the vote is virtually anti-Semitic, against all Jews, aims to harm Jews and Israel, seeks to achieve a Jews-free Middle East, and other such accusations.
Some of the critics of the church have resorted to intimidation and blackmail measures that aim to frighten pro-divestment voters, by raising again the specter of anti-Semitism. This aims to perpetuate the prevailing situation in the United States that minimizes any serious public discussion of the moral, political and human consequences of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands since 1967, and blocks any meaningful political acts that show displeasure with Israel’s behavior.
The church decision is important, therefore, because it shatters this unhealthy situation, in several realms:
It has sustained an open, honest and heartfelt debate about the situation in Israel/Palestine over the past decade, both at local community level and nationally, with pro- and anti-divestment voices offering their views.
It has seen pro-divestment sentiment grow steadily among church members, especially among younger ones, indicating that the scaremongering of the pro-Israel extremists has consistently failed to achieve its goal.
It has articulated an active link between the moral foundations and purpose of the church and its actions in real life around the world, offering a guide for its members and interested others to study if they wish.
It has emphatically smashed the barriers that always made it impossible for mainstream American organizations to take practical political action to show their displeasure with Israel’s cruel, colonial and criminal actions in the occupied territories.
It has decisively and repeatedly made it clear that its divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation is about the wrongs of the Israeli occupation — not about Israel or Jews, for whom the church has deep respect and affinity.
One of the important reasons the divestment motion passed in Detroit is because the church put it in a wider context of supporting the rights of Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security in adjacent states. The divestment resolution also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders, alongside a free, viable, and secure Palestinian state. The church also reaffirmed its commitment to interfaith dialog and partnerships with Jews, Muslims and Christians as central to local churches’ work, and urged, “all church institutions to give careful consideration to possible investments in Israel-Palestine that advance peace and improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis.”
This is a rare public show in the United States of equitable action in the public sphere in a manner that is anchored in faith’s moral imperatives while also aiming to meet the best interests of both communities in Palestine/Israel. This process has gone on for the past decade, and deserves to be better understood in all its dimensions, because it offers an example of equitable, sustained action — like the anti-Apartheid sanctions in South Africa — that could one day lead to a fruitful outcome for all concerned.

Rami G. Khouri
is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri
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