This past summer in Pittsburgh, the 220th Presbyterian General Assembly (GA) affirmed and reinforced the decades-long Presbyterian commitment to peacemaking in the Middle East. Despite an intense and well-funded lobbying campaign by pro-divestment groups from both within and outside the PCUSA, the GA rejected a recurring proposal to divest from companies doing business with Israel, which this year targeted three companies: Caterpillar Tractor, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola Solutions. Sadly, divestment advocates within our denomination, affiliated with the global Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement, seem unwilling to accept the fact that our church has time after time chosen a different path toward advancing peace.
Instead of divestment, the GA called for positive investment in peace. GA commissioners wisely chose to stay the course embraced by the PCUSA consistently for decades: to engage in dialogue and cooperation with all people of good will, to act as peacemakers and not parties to the conflict, and to invest in peaceful endeavors of both an economic and social character. This coincided with recent actions by the Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians all soundly rejecting divestment and embracing positive investment for peace.
Despite the rejection of divestment, the GA did endorse a targeted boycott of products produced by Israeli companies with operations in West Bank industrial zones. We at Presbyterians for Middle East Peace stand firmly in support of a two-state solution, establishment of a peaceful Palestinian state, and affirmation of the rights and aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis. At the same time, we do not believe that a boycott is the right way to advance peace and improve the welfare and future of Palestinians.
A claim was made by BDS advocates at the GA that “Palestinian civil society” calls for the boycott of Israeli companies with operations in the West Bank. In 2010 close to 35,000 West Bank Palestinians were employed by these companies, supporting more than 200,000 Palestinians financially (Ha`aretz December 2010). We would argue that these 35,000 Palestinians and their families are also members of “Palestinian civil society” and should have the same rights as Palestinian BDS advocates, yet their voices were missing in the debate. They are ordinary people working hard to make a decent living, support their families, and provide a future for their children. They come to work each day and work side-by-side with Israeli Jews, helping puncture the myth of Jews and Arabs being natural enemies unable to coexist in peace.
In a landmark agreement, the Histadrut (Israeli Trade Union Council) and the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) signed an agreement in August 2008 to base future relations on negotiation, dialogue and joint initiatives to advance “fraternity and co-existence” ( Israeli and Palestinian trade unions cooperate ). An example of this cooperation was evident in October 2007 when the Histadrut successfully petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice for Israeli labour law to be applied in the occupied territories, something that was previously denied. Nine judges ruled that Palestinians working for Israeli employers in West Bank settlements should be given the same work benefits provided by Israeli law. The ruling set an important precedent that benefits thousands of Palestinians working for Israelis and Israeli companies throughout the West Bank. Palestinians who work for Israeli companies earn twice as much on average as those who work in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. For many, the difference in wages is even higher ( Your Middle East, 2012).
SodaStream is an example of an Israeli company targeted by the BDS movement. Sodastream has operations in the Maaleh Adumim settlement block adjacent to Jerusalem, which is widely expected by both Palestinians and Israelis to be part of Israel proper once final borders (with fair and sensible land swaps) between Israel and Palestine are established. Sodastream’s settlement operations are an example of successful coexistence with its 160 West Bank employees and Israeli Jews, Christians, Russians, Ethiopians, and Bedouin. The company celebrates the holidays of all and fosters cultural exchange. When BDS activists pressured a Swiss company to sever ties with SodaStream, the company reestablished its business ties after doing its own investigation of SodaStream policies.
According to a study conducted by Israeli researcher Issa Smeirat as part of his M.A Degree, over 16,000 Palestinians from the West Bank have established businesses and firms inside Israel and its settlements. This includes establishing several factories and companies, many of which have numerous branches ( Ha’aretz, Nov. 22, 2011 ).
A good case in point is the Atarot industrial zone adjacent to Jerusalem. Before 2001, over 200 companies were located in the zone. About 40 of them were Arab-owned, and two-thirds of the 4,000 employees were East Jerusalem or Palestinian Arabs. Today, even the Palestinian Authority does not describe the Atarot industrial park as an “illegal settlement” because Palestinians have over $500 million of investments in the area, including the print headquarters for the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds, according to Abdul Hafiz Nofal, the undersecretary of the PA’s Ministry of National Economy ( Israel National News, October 27, 2010 ).
If you are asked to support this misguided boycott effort, we urge you to consider carefully all the facts. Unlike divestment, which requires only GA approval for implementation, the “settlement boycott” needs grassroots support from “Presbyterians in the pews” in order to have any impact at all. Fortunately, an early read across the denomination suggests minimal and insignificant support at the congregational level for such a boycott. In fact, we note that several of the leaders of the movement for a boycott at the GA seem to be showing little enthusiasm for promoting the boycott to their own congregations. Investing in peace works, boycotts don’t.
"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Consistent with the call for positive investment in peace, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace is launching an effort to identify and support grassroots mission projects that go hand-in-hand with advancement of Middle East peace. We seek efforts that build bridges and heal hearts, and that individual Presbyterian congregations can directly engage in and support.
The first mission opportunity we urge you to consider is built on the collaborative efforts of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. This effort, involving multiple charities, brings children from the Palestinian territories to Israel for life-saving heart surgery. While its first priority is the healing of physical hearts, an equally important benefit is the healing of spiritual hearts.
The Christian relief organization ShevetAchim ( www.shevet.org ) began its work in 1994, founded by Jonathan Miles, an American journalist who was at the time volunteering for another Christian relief organization. In 1996 Miles and his family moved to the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, where they lived in the Shaburra refugee camp. Responsibility for health care had been turned over to the newly-formed Palestinian Authority, and many Gaza children who needed urgent medical care could no longer get referrals to hospitals in Israel.
Dr. Ami Cohen was starting his work with the Israeli charity Save a Child's Heart ( www.saveachildsheartus.org ) which helped non-Israeli childrenundergo heart surgeries at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel. Dr. Cohen wanted to reach Palestinian children but had difficulty making connections with the bureaucracy in the Gaza Strip, so Miles began to find the children with congenital heart defects and bring them out to Israel.
How does a child with a heart defect from the Gaza Strip receive open heart surgery in Israel? There are four phases of treatment:
1. Diagnosis in Gaza
2. Confirmation of diagnosis in Israel
3. Heart surgery, followed by a week in the hospital
4. Follow-up examinations to ensure proper healing
Shevet Achim’s work originally began with children from the Gaza Strip, and Gaza remains the most important area of operation for the organization. Each week, Shevet volunteers assist on average five to fifteen children in phases two through four, transporting them between the border and the hospital (often via intensive care ambulances), and visiting throughout their treatment with meals and encouragement.
Shevet Achim is a community of people from diverse backgrounds who live and work together in the same building - 29 Prophets Street, Jerusalem. Their volunteer staff shares living space, work assignments, meals, and daily prayer and scripture study.
The children and parents who have turned to the hospitals of Israel for life-saving treatment also reside at 29 Prophets Street. The upstairs of the building is their home while in Israel, with sleeping quarters, a large kitchen, dining room, and recreation room. As volunteers, children, and parents all live together in the same building, the hope is to see the promise of “Shevet Achim”, which means "brothers dwelling together" in Hebrew.
We urge you to visit the websites of both Save a Child’s Heart (www.saveachildsheartus.org) andShevet Achim (www.shevet.org) , and prayerfully consider inclusion of these important efforts in your congregation’s mission and peacemaking commitments. For more information, or to connect with Presbyterians engaged in supporting these efforts, please feel welcome to contact us at Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. We will be reporting regularly through our newsletters on progress toward building a targeted mission network focused on peace and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine.