If there was ever any question that congregations and the General Assembly live in different worlds, the 2014 divestment decision has decided the issue. On the national and international level, the divestment action by the 2014 General Assembly has been met by a torrent of critical media articles pointing out the contradictory nature of the GA’s actions, angry op-eds and toughly worded press releases from major Jewish organizations. On the local level, many congregations are reporting that their long-standing relationships with synagogues “down the street” continue to be strong and vital. From Birmingham, Alabama to Larchmont, New York, from Houston, Texas to Alexandria, Virginia, Presbyterian congregations are telling us that the divestment decision has actually brought them closer to the synagogues and rabbis with whom they have worked for decades.
Dr. Ed Hurley, senior pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL, wrote to his congregation, “I attended Shabbat services last Saturday at Temple Emanu-El, where I was warmly greeted and spoke briefly with profound regret over the action of my own Church. And Rabbi and Mrs. Jonathan Miller attended our services here Sunday and told me they felt loved deeply by South Highlanders who expressed sorrow over the action taken. It seems to me the PCUSA General Assembly chose a divisive path following the Mission Responsibility through Investment divestment recommendation -- instead of a path that, like the recent initiative of Pope Francis in inviting leaders of Palestine and Israel to the Vatican for prayer and conversation, could lead to healing.”
In response, the Birmingham Jewish Federation wrote to its members, “We at The BJF thank Rev. Hurley for his letter and his leadership. It is comforting to know that even while the national PC USA organization has taken such a misguided and biased action, our Presbyterian friends in Birmingham remain committed to supporting Israel and pursuing sincere efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Why such a different response between the national and local levels? In contrast to the GA’s symbolic action of divestment, the actions of Presbyterians and American Jews in their communities are concrete. Congregations work together for social justice, feeding the hungry, building habitat for humanity homes, and in many other projects. As they work for justice, Jews and Presbyterians build bonds of trust. Bonds of trust lead to meaningful dialogue about tough issues; issues such as how together we can work for the peace and security of both Israelis and Palestinians.
The symbolic GA action to divest has had exactly the opposite effect. Instead of creating trust and dialogue, it has cut off discourse between the GA’s leadership and prominent American Jewish leadership, with no timetable for it to resume. Of course, divestment also eliminated a possibility for GA leaders to speak truth directly to the power of Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, an offer extended by Rabbi Jacobs directly to the GA in Detroit. Do we really think the PCUSA is in a better position to help bring about peace in the Middle East without trusting dialogue with the American Jewish community and Israeli government officials who can now ignore us?
In another contrast between congregational and GA life, the Jewish Voices for Peace activists, who were omnipresent during the nine days the GA met have now melted back into the much larger American Jewish community where they are without influence. In their place are the synagogues with whom our congregations work, not for nine days every two years, but for 365 days a year, every year. Instead of the twenty-nine American Rabbis affiliated with Jewish Voices for Peace, most Presbyterians return to work with the thousands of Rabbis across America in our communities.
Yes, these are different worlds, congregations and the General Assembly. Part of our work ahead is to bring the two worlds together. Divided, we are wounded and weakened as a church. Together, we can be peacemakers globally and locally.
The tragedy of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists, and the violence that followed, brought a major requirement for peace into sharp focus: the need for leaders on both sides firmly opposed to violence and committed to coexistence. When the young Palestinian teenager was murdered in an apparent revenge killing, the response from Israeli leaders was condemnation and a call to bring the perpetrators to justice. The arrest of several suspects followed. The response from Palestinian leaders, however, revealed a huge divide that Palestinians must overcome to realize their aspirations of self-determination and statehood.
Palestinian Authority President Abbas strongly condemned the abduction of the Israeli teenagers. "Those who kidnapped the three teenagers want to destroy us. We will hold them accountable," Abbas said at a meeting in the Saudi Arabia. Abbas also defended the cooperation between PA security forces and the IDF in the operation, saying "the kidnapped are human beings like us."
"It is in our interest to have security coordination with Israel because that would help protect us," Abbas said, claiming "I say it frankly, we will never have another Intifada - that would destroy us."
Leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza condemned Abbas over the cooperation, saying instead he should declare “jihad” against the “Zionists.” Hamas leaders praised and congratulated the kidnappers and referred to the Israeli teenagers as “soldiers”, implying they were fair game and legitimate targets.
Herein lies the reality and the dilemma facing Israelis and Palestinians seeking peace through two states for two peoples. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, governs 40% of the Palestinian population, and remains openly committed to violence and the killing of Israeli civilians. The goal of Hamas and affiliated jihadist groups is not the end of oppression, it is the end of Israel. Yet we hear narratives that deny this reality, particularly from advocates of divestment and the international BDS movement.
Divestment is described as a strategy to force Israel to “change its policies toward Palestinians”, yet divestment advocates offer nothing concrete as to what the so-called “policy changes” should be. Do they want an open border between the West Bank and Israel? Do they want all Israeli security withdrawn from the West Bank? What is their plan to deal with Hamas and affiliated jihadist groups when they fill the security vacuum created by such moves? Such an outcome, which is quite likely should Israel pull security from the West Bank, would be a catastrophe for both Israelis and Palestinians seeking peace. How would the BDS plan address this risk? In reality, they offer no such plan.
BDS advocates got narrow approval for divesting from the three targeted companies doing business with Israel. It is now time for BDS proponents to explain specifically what they want this pressure campaign to achieve and how it will work.