An FAQ: How To Respond To Common Defenses of Opposition to PCUSA Resolution

There are very legitimate arguments about different kinds of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanction (BDS). Indeed, I have made many

Would you want to be investing in this?

Would you want to be investing in this?

of them myself. This is why I do not consider myself personally connected to the so-called “BDS Movement.” But since the late 1990s I have been advocating for public, economic pressures on Israel to change its policies, because without such pressure it has no reason to do so. Like any other country, Israel makes difficult policy shifts only when the cost of the current policy clearly and unarguably outweighs the risk of change.

For these reasons, among others, I have been a strong advocate, for most of this century, for what become known as “selective divestment,” although it can encompass other actions as well. Targeted actions, rather than sweeping calls to boycott anything and everything Israeli are, in my view, both more effective and more just. I had once hoped that this strategy would take broader hold, because I feared that otherwise, the entire notion of economic action would come to be identified with one segment of the pro-Palestinian/anti-occupation crowd—the more radical and anti-Zionist strain. While BDS is employed and supported by many anti-occupation activists, including not a few who consider themselves liberal or left-wing Zionists, my fear of how BDS would be identified has indeed come to pass. That sad event can be laid at the feet both of over-zealous BDS activists and at some ostensibly anti-occupation people and groups who really should know better.

In my article earlier today on the PCUSA’s latest push for divestment, I made the case as to why such a proposal should be supported. The counter-arguments appeared just about everywhere they could, and they were uniformly weak, usually reinforcing the very accusation of illogic that I leveled against opponents of the resolution in the piece itself. This prompts me to address the arguments. So here’s is a bit of an FAQ about the arguments against supporting the PCUSA resolution, as made by people who ostensibly oppose the occupation.

  1. BDS is all about destroying Israel.
    No doubt there are many BDS activists who are zealously anti-Zionist. There are even a few that I’ve encountered who are anti-Semitic. But I have been around the BDS movement since its inception and remain in the circles of much of its leadership, and I can attest there is a wide variety of views among activists who press for some kind of economic action against the occupation. It is certainly true that some of the most visible BDS leaders are outspoken anti-Zionists, but there are also committed Zionists who advocate for boycotts of settlement products, including Peace Now, both in Israel and the US, Peter Beinart, Gush Shalom (who were doing it long before anyone else) and others.
    The real problem with turning BDS, which is a tactic, into a movement is that it is not “all about” anything at all. It is different depending on who uses the tactic. As a result, it also becomes an easy cop-out for groups like J Street who want, on the one hand, to end the occupation, but on the other, wish to do so without pressuring Israel in any way. That is, of course, quite impossible. It’s simply not the way any change has ever come about, anywhere. And it certainly won’t work in a country where the populace has a real say in policy when that populace is locked in a conflict that scares it on a daily basis (a fear which is played up to the hilt not only by enemies, but by their own leaders even more so).
    Economic pressure is an indispensable tool for outsiders to create real pressure on Israel to change its policies. Without it, we can only throw up our hands and leave it “in the purview of the diplomats” who have done such a wonderful job so far. If we simply write off all economic actions as being “BDS which is bent on destroying Israel” we sacrifice the only tool we have as non-governmental actors to make a difference.
    Any effective tool to pressure Israel, by definition, will be picked up by those who have animosity toward Israel. If people of good will allow ourselves to be cowed by that argument, then all we leave ourselves are ineffective tools. It makes a lot more sense to take the tools and use them in a more egalitarian way than we are accusing others of doing.
  2. The PCUSA is singling out Israel.
    Let me reprint here what I put online elsewhere:
    Here’s a list of companies the PCUSA has officially targeted for divestment prior to this year, due to their involvement in tobacco production (TO), military-related production (MR) or human rights violations (HR). All of these are already in place, and, like the current proposal, they are not about boycotting a country, but divesting from corporations engaging in activities they do not want to support. But, of course, now that the Israeli occupation is being considered (along with companies profiting off the strife in Sudan, as well as a measure separate from this branch that calls for an end to the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara), Israel is being “singled out.” That is a phrase tossed around very casually, usually with zero fact-checking behind it. It is occasionally true, but usually it’s simply an attempt to avoid dealing with the issue by hurling a false polemic. Here, in any case, is that list (click here to see the list, and click here to see the full MRTI report).
    In general, the accusation of Israel being “singled out” is hurled frequently and only occasionally with merit. One oft-cited and very valid example is the UN Human Rights Council, which has issued 50 resolutions against Israel, comprising over 45% of the Council’s total. Israel is the only country that has merited an annual human rights review from the Council. The occupation is bad, very bad; so is the way Israel treats its Arab citizens, and the way it has acted in Southern Lebanon, and, of course, Gaza. But it’s hardly the equal of almost all the human rights violations of the entire rest of the world combined. That, I daresay, is an excellent example of Israel being singled out.
    But how often does it happen elsewhere? Often I have seen human rights groups facing this accusation, and it is pretty much never true; it’s just that when Israel is accused of violations, its supporters scream so loud they make big news of it, so accusations against Israel are the only ones most people hear about. In any case, it is abundantly clear that the PCUSA’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment, which issued the report recommending the divestment form the three corporations the PCUSA will be considering, is in no way “singling out” Israel.
  3. Wouldn’t it be better, and less of a blunt instrument, to invest in things like join projects between Israel and Palestinians than the more controversial boycotts and divestment campaigns?
    Sure, it would be a lot easier to do that. There’s a reason for that: it’s completely meaningless to invest in such ventures. While some joint ventures and Palestinian businesses can survive and turn some profit under conditions of occupation, there simply isn’t the space for significant investment in either of those categories, certainly not enough to make a noticeable impact on either the prospects for a better future or very many Palestinian lives in the short term. As with so many things, this idea also completely ignores Gaza; but even the West Bank cannot function economically under such conditions. Investment is not charity; investors, including churches, expect a positive return on their investment. For churches and philanthropies, they will give charity, but investment is meant to be a profitable engagement. The West Bank experienced a period of significant growth, but almost all of it was due to foreign aid. As a result, private sector growth was unsustainable due to the conditions of occupation, and, by the end of 2013, the World Bank estimates that growth had diminished to just over 1%. These are not conditions where investment is reasonable, and any that does happen is unlikely to produce positive returns in the short run. So, it is really just more aid.
    That can be helpful, but only in the immediate sense. It is like giving a homeless person $5. Yes, they might well buy a meal with it, and that is a good, helpful thing. But it does nothing to alleviate their impoverished condition.
    Investment in joint or Palestinian businesses makes liberals feel good. But it does nothing to change Israeli policy, and in some ways can even strengthen the underlying systems of occupation. This is one reason why the Israeli business community has tried to be more active in recent years in both establishing infrastructure that can help facilitate joint business ventures and create a stronger Palestinian private sector that would do much of its business with Israel. But they have also, and quite separately, been pushing the Netanyahu government toward a two-state solution—because they, like any other thinking person, understand that the Palestinian private sector cannot achieve sustainable growth without a Palestinian state to flourish in, and that occupation, by its very nature, impedes economic growth.
    These same conditions render so-called “positive investment” moot as replacement for opposing the occupation. The Presbyterians, like many other groups, and progressive investment firms, have programs of “positive investment” where they invest in ventures that promote some kind of social justice, or that at least bar investment in more destructive ventures. The latter category includes the PCUSA’s policy around not investing in businesses connected to the promotion of tobacco sales, of human rights violations, or that are heavily involved in military production. It is this last category that prompted the PCUSA resolution regarding arming, equipping and supplying the Israeli occupation.

I do not like the idea of BDS as a blunt tool, swung willy-nilly at everything Israeli. I’m fairly convinced that academic and cultural boycotts are ineffective and anything that is ineffective, no matter which side employs it, risks enflaming matters that hardly need enflaming. But targeting the settlements and the considerable amount of involvement that institutions, public and private, inside of Israel have with them has the potential to be devastatingly effective, and not only in terms of stopping settlement growth.

Such measures, if they spread far enough (and there have been several examples of European financial institutions taking such measures, as well as churches, investment funds and other key players) will cause a broad reassessment within Israel of their policies. That can make a real difference. But only if the tools are employed effectively.

Is the PCUSA doing that?
As a whole, yes, The PCUSA, like any large body, has a variety of views within it. But the body as a whole decides, between the different views. In this case, the question at hand is not an anti-Israel resolution. No one can reasonably look at the recommendation being voted on and come to that conclusion honestly. The resolution takes the PCUSA investment principles, which are largely uncontroversial within the church, and applies them to corporations which are profiting from specific purchases that Israel makes to sustain its occupation. This must be stressed: it is NOT due to any business done with Israel that is used for Israeli security! In fact, it is not directed at Israel at all, but toward international corporations profiting specifically from the occupation!

Pro-occupation forces don’t like it when anyone treats Israel the same as they treat every other country on earth. The disappointing thing about this issue, is that J Street is demonstrating that they don’t like it when Israel is treated that way either.

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