From churches, a challenge to Israeli policies

Some may wield an old financial tool – divestment – to register concern about peace prospects

Jane Lampman, The Christian Science Monitor, DECEMBER 6, 2004

A vote by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to use economic sanctions against certain companies doing business with Israel – namely those that profit from the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – has set off a quiet firestorm within the American religious community.

The Presbyterians’ decision to consider divesting such businesses from its $8 billion portfolio, coupled with the prospect that the Episcopal Church and other churches might do the same, is adding to tensions that have risen over recent years between mainline Protestant churches and the American Jewish community over their differing views of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

It is also stirring Jewish groups to try to head off divestment – and to rebuild a rapport with these churches, with whom they have long worked to further civil rights and social justice.

“To call for divestment played into all the language of boycott, from earlier periods in Jewish history to the Arab boycott of Israel. It caused an explosion in the Jewish community,” says David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

In some ways, last summer’s divestment vote has forced a conversation about the Middle East conflict. It also raises the stakes for those who, earlier this year, launched a bid to renew the old coalition. Christian and Jewish leaders have met twice, hosted by AJC and the National Council of Churches. From discussions on the “theology of land” to the divestment issue, the religious leaders “spoke from their pain” and asked tough questions of one another, says the Rev. Shanta Premawardhana, NCC interfaith secretary.

Tensions rose when a Presbyterian delegation traveling in the Middle East in October met with members of Hizbullah, the Lebanese group on the US terrorist list. The church’s national leadership disavowed the action. Then in November, the church received a letter threatening arson against Presbyterian churches unless it halted the divestment process. Jewish groups condemned the threat.

Last week, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs asked Protestants to reject divestment in favor of joint efforts to end the conflict. Elaborating on Jewish concerns, it said the divestment process is discriminatory, will provoke intransigence on both sides, and “is dangerously ill-matched to our passionately shared vision of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”

Mainline churches have supported Israel since 1948 and reject terrorism; they also have longstanding ties to churches in the Holy Land and are critical of Israeli military practices in the territories. Illegal expansion of Israeli settlements and a new security wall that encroaches on Palestinian land are making a viable Palestinian state less feasible, Presbyterians and others say. With the US government taking little action to help matters, they add, unusual measures are required.

“The decision to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment … was not taken lightly,” the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, a Presbyterian leader, wrote to members of the US Congress. “It was born out of the frustration that many of our members, as well as members of other denominations, feel with the current policies of Israel and those of our own government.”

The Presbyterians say their aims are to influence the practices of companies and use their resources – an $8 billion portfolio – in morally responsible ways. “We have to be principled; we respect human rights and the legitimacy of international law, and when Israelis or Palestinians breech either we’ll take a hard look at our investments,” says the Rev. Marthame Sanders, who was in ministry in the West Bank.

The church’s committee on socially responsible investment will identify firms that provide services or equipment to support the military occupation or Jewish settlements; finance or assist in building the wall; or provide help to Israeli or Palestinian groups that commit violence against innocent civilians.

It will seek meetings with corporate leaders, and possibly file shareholder resolutions, using divestment a last resort. Divestment decisions require approval by the church general assembly in 2006.

Some US Jewish peace groups support the initiative, Mr. Sanders says, including Jewish Voice for Peace. JVP has filed its own shareholder initiative asking Caterpillar Inc. to investigate whether Israeli use of its bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes violates the firm’s code of conduct. Other liberal Jewish groups, however, oppose it.

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Saying no to Israel is not anti-Semitism

B.J. Paschal, Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, December 1, 2004

DOES AN AMERICAN religious denomination such as the Presbyterian Church have the right to divest an $8 billion portfolio from Israel? Apparently not, according to the U.S. News & World Report, headed by Editor-in-Chief Mortimer B. Zuckerman and other pro-Israel embedded “journalists” such as John Leo.

How could this magazine, which claims to be “America’s most credible print news source,” attempt to vilify the Presbyterian Church General Assembly’s decision to selectively divest from companies that profit from Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories? Answer: The “free press” clause in the First Amendment. But don’t the “religion clauses” in the First Amendment give Presbyterians the right to do what they believe is right? Don’t Presbyterians have the right to demand of companies that, before they buy their shares, they want them to share their values?

John Leo says “No!” These “leftists” simply “pummel Israel whenever possible.” Their “fixation on Israel” is a “one-sided expression of ideology.” Why not criticize “China, Libya, Syria or North Korea”? asked Leo. The answer is simple. We taxpayers give Israel more wrong money than any nation on planet Earth, and we demand very little of Israel. It’s time for a change.

The U.S. News (Oct. 19) used a report from the right-wing ideologues at the Institute on Religion and Democracy to call the General Assembly a bunch of “fringe leftists.” Rubbish!

Why didn’t Leo point out that 14 members of the House of Representatives (including three of 52 Presbyterians in Congress) have implored the Presbyterian Church to rescind its decision? That’s government interfering with people of faith. But the 14 representatives justify their “messing with religion” by pointing out that the church’s action is causing “terrible distress.” To whom? I hope to the government of Israel.

We Presbyterians have criticized the Republican-controlled Congress for failing to be a balanced arbiter for peace in the Middle East. Why did Leo fail to mention that fact? While Congress, the New Yorker and U.S. News have repeatedly denounced the Palestinian authority, they have never condemned Israel’s continuous illegal construction of settlements on the West Bank. Why?

The Anglican Church has announced its intention to adopt a corporate divestment strategy similar to that of the Presbyterian Church. What about the evangelicals? They believe they stand for high moral purpose in politics. They don’t. Therefore, don’t hold your breath for them to suddenly find Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Is divestment anti-Semitism? No, the charge is rubbish.

October 23, 2004
Film: The Fourth World War

UW-Madison
Humanities, Rm 3650
7:00 pm

The Fourth World War will have its Madison premiere hosted by producers/directors Rick Rowley and Jacqueline Soohen. MRSCP is one of the co-sponsors of this showing.

Shot on the front lines of struggles spanning five continents, The Fourth World War is the untold story of people who resist being annihilated in the current global conflict. The film weaves together the images and voices of the war on the ground — in Mexico, Argentina, South Africa, Palestine, Korea, Seattle, Genoa and New York. The intensity and immediacy of its images are beyond anything the mainstream media can shoot, the intimacy and passion of its stories are beyond anything it can feel. Narrated by Tony Award winner Suheir Hammad and Singer Michael Franti of Spearhead, it is a radical story of hope and human connection in the face of a war that shatters and divides.

Richard Rowley and Jacqueline Soohen are New York-based filmmakers whose groundbreaking feature documentaries Zapatista (1998), Black and Gold (1999), and This is What Democracy Looks Like (2000) have won top honors at hundreds of film festivals worldwide. Established video journalists, they have reported from Argentina, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, East Timor, South Africa, and Palestine, where they were the only video team to break the 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Free and open to the public. For info call 262-9036.