Later today, perhaps by the time you read this, or perhaps tomorrow, the plenary session of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly will vote on the recommendation of its Committee 15 to divest from three corporationsthat are profiting from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza, and its concomitant violations of Palestinian human rights.
Jewish Voice for Peace has been a key player supporting the divestment resolutions. But they face opposition not only from the major Jewish and pro-occupation groups, but also from the Zionist peace groups, J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
J Street has been consistent in opposing any kind of pressure on Israel. Their program seems to be to find ways to ask Israel, with more and more “pretty pleases” all the time, to end their occupation.
But APN has supported limited boycotts of settlement programs, products and institutions in the past. Still, one can argue that divestment in general has always been opposed by APN, so the case can be made that their call for PC(USA) to defeat the divestment resolution is also consistent with their positions.
I’m sure they think so.
APN is a wonderful institution. No one does better work in documenting the activities of AIPAC and other pro-occupation lobbying groups on Capitol Hill. They are an indispensible source of information on settlements, especially in East Jerusalem. They have done a huge amount of good on this issue, as much as any group, and more than most. I am proud to have worked with them and proud to call several of their staff members and others affiliated with the group both colleagues and friends.
But this time, they are dead wrong.
APN’s president and CEO, Debra DeLee gives their reasoning on this as follows:
”… divestment campaigns…use a blunt instrument to pressure global corporations to curtail their business with Israel because of objectionable Israeli government policies in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip…By targeting Israel rather than the occupation, this divestment campaign creates the impression that PC (USA) is making common cause with historically virulently anti-Israel organizations and individuals, who are often not interested in Israeli security concerns or Palestinian behavior but in Israel’s destruction. Divestment campaigns such as this therefore raise very real and understandable worries about global anti-Semitism and the perception that the campaigns are not truly (or only) about Israeli policies but rather reflect a deep-seated hatred for and rejection of Israel…Their impact, characteristically, is not Israel changing its policies but rather changing the subject. Divestment initiatives like this divert attention from the problem – the occupation – and help advocates of the status-quo frame things in ways that serve their goals.”
The most important point that APN gets wrong here is their characterization of PC(USA)’s initiative. It specifically distinguishes between Israel and the West Bank and clearly targets corporations for doing business which helps sustain Israel’s “objectionable” policies, not for doing business with Israel. The published rationale for the resolution, which can be seen here, explains precisely why Hewlett-Packard, Motorola Solutions and Caterpillar have been chosen for divestment, and those rationales are all isolated to the occupation.
Now, it is certainly true that divestment is a much more “blunt instrument” than, for instance, an Israeli boycott of a theater in the settlement of Ariel, something APN did support. But what choice is there?
Israel has deepened its occupation and worked tirelessly to make the two-state solution impossible. Some, like myself, believe it has succeeded, but even J Street has repeatedly warned that “time is short” for that solution. Asking nicely, facilitating two decades of unproductive talks, manipulating Palestinian politics, supporting a failed coup in Gaza…none of that has worked.
And there’s good reason it hasn’t. Many, myself included, have made the argument that Israel’s continuing occupation, dispossession of Palestinian lands and trampling of Palestinian human, political and civil rights is, even beyond the monumental moral issues these obviously represent, detrimental to Israel’s long-term interests. But in the short and medium terms, this case cannot be made.
The settlements are an integral part of Israel now–hence the US-Israeli position that “demographic considerations” mean Israel will keep its major settlement blocs no matter what. They also lie in such a position as to ensure Israeli control over a good portion of the West Bank’s water resources, aquifers which supply a considerable portion of the water needs of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor. Plus the settlers, a relatively small percentage of Israeli citizens, have a wildly disproportionate influence over Israeli politics, and that influence is growing quickly.
None of that means Israel can’t change its policies regarding the Palestinians. But those factors absolutely mean that it won’t unless given compelling reason to take on so many political and practical difficulties.
That’s why J Street’s tactic of just asking Israel nicely to change is hopeless. J Street does important work and they are helping to change some of the discussion here in Washington. But on actually impacting Israeli policies, they are not really doing much of anything because of this approach.
APN is a bit different. It is no easy task for a Jewish, Zionist organization to endorse boycotts of settlement products. They’ve done that, and bravo for it.
And I agree with them that some parts of the BDS movement play very much into the hands of those who wish to paint Israel as permanently besieged, innocent, and simply doing what it must to defend itself against terrorism and global double-standards. That picture bears only scant resemblance to reality but has proven very useful in convincing fair-minded people to support, or at least ignore, Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.
But that is precisely why carefully targeted divestment like the one that PC(USA) is pursuing must be supported. It doesn’t single out Israel–it’s part of PC(USA)’s broader policy regarding investment. It doesn’t target Israel, just the occupation and its apparatus. If the line there has been blurred, that is Israel’s intentional doing, and that cannot be used to stymie direct, non-violent, collective action against the occupation.
I asked APN spokesman Ori Nir about this. Ori is a man I’ve known now for some time, a good man who cares deeply about his home country, Israel, and is just as deeply distressed by its occupation. He sent me a copy of the response he had sent to a JVP Board member who asked him to justify APN’s stance on this.
In part, it read, ” Our approach … focuses on drawing a line, the Green Line, between what we support and what we don’t. We deeply support Israel. We do not support settlements, the most pervasive manifestation of policies that stand in the way of implementing the two-state solution. We, therefore, focus on publicly urging Americans – just as our Israeli partners at Israel’s Peace Now movement urge Israelis – to boycott the settlements while making a point of buying products made in Israel.”
I guess this indicates a line between boycotting the settlements and divesting from corporations that support those same settlements. I don’t get that distinction, quite frankly, other than in terms of a certain pragmatic concern about how some of APN’s supporters might see each one differently. And, yes, I know that boycotting the settlements is a somewhat more precise targeting than a divestment campaign. But it is also far less impactful, especially in the halls of the Knesset and the Prime Minister’s Office.
There is no substitute for real pressure on Israel. It will not change its policies without it. And if the tools that must be brought to bear are harsher than I, at least, might have preferred in the past, that’s due to Israel’s own actions in entrenching its occupation.
Israel has made it clear that it won’t change without a compelling reason to do so. That’s only natural; any country, whether or not its policies are justified, acts that way. So, pressure needs to be brought. It needs to be done non-violently, in a way that does not enflame matters and in a way that harms the innocent as little as possible. It seems to me those have been precisely the parameters PC(USA) has followed in this resolution.
Such divestment could begin a trend–if more and more people take their money away from corporations that enable the occupation, that might represent some real consequences to Israel of its unjust and often criminal policies. Unfortunately, it has mostly been able to pursue those policies with total impunity. I hope someday APN will realize that their own dream of an occupation-free Israel cannot be achieved if good people like themselves continue to shy away from efforts at creating the pressure that the US government continues to shield Israel from.