Presbyterians Won’t Budge on Divesting


You have to hand it to those Presbyterians. Their leaders know what they want, and they won’t be deflected by things like logic, fairness or the well-being of people in the Middle East.

Church leaders in Louisville, Ky., appear determined to single out Israel for corporate “divestment,” and apparently no amount of internal revolt or outside input will dissuade them.

That’s a big problem for mainstream Jewish groups that have always operated on the principle that dialogue is the first step in dealing with intergroup conflict. The plain fact is that the Presbyterian leaders just aren’t listening.

Groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, while reporting useful discussions with local Presbyterian groups, are fed up with the national church leadership. For months after the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin a process of “selective divestment” against companies that do business in Israel, the Jewish groups continued to believe that a policy of hard-headed dialogue would help church leaders understand the glaring imbalance of their efforts.

Eventually, they believed, logic would prevail, and the Presbyterians would realize that at the very least, the timing of their action — at the precise moment when the region seemed to be moving toward a new peace process — was perverse.

They didn’t expect a sudden burst of love for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but they thought that the Presbyterians would eventually accept what even ardent Jewish peace groups accept — that Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan represents the best current hope for renewal of a genuine peace process, and that anything that might get in the way should be avoided.

Jewish leaders set up meetings, wrote papers, visited local churches and planned a joint trip to the Middle East with Protestant leaders. Despite those efforts — and despite a strong internal revolt by Presbyterians who were embarrassed by their church’s unhelpful actions — church leaders just didn’t get the message.

Instead of listening, Presbyterian leaders arranged rigged “dialogue” sessions featuring only Jews representing the miniscule minority that doesn’t think the divestment policy is one-sided and destructive to the peace process. When mainstream Jewish leaders complained, the Presbyterian leaders responded petulantly: How dare the Jews meddle.

The Louisville leadership held a training session on divestment and rejected a position paper expressing the mainstream Jewish view, a paper other churches willingly distributed.

Most Jewish leaders involved in the divestment fight now believe the Presbyterian effort at dialogue was just for show, and that church leaders were unalterably committed to the controversial policy.

The Presbyterian position is particularly glaring, because dialogue has shown at least the potential for progress with groups such as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ. These churches didn’t abandon their criticism of Israel, but they listened to Jewish concerns and made an effort to find a balance between their support for the Palestinians and the call to be fair to the Jewish state.

Jewish leaders are loathe to assess the Presbyterians’ motives, but it’s getting harder to argue that they don’t include outright hostility to Israel and maybe even anti-Semitism.

How else to explain actions that imply that Israel is alone to blame for the conflict, that it is among the worst human rights abusers in the world and that its current peace efforts count for nothing? What other nations are being targeted for sanctions? How else to explain actions that give legitimacy to groups that blame Israel for everything from its separation fence to tsunamis, and drive pro-Israel forces more into the willing embrace of Christian right extremists?

Too often, Jewish groups have conveyed the impression that criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism. It isn’t; it’s perfectly possible to detest the occupation and condemn the policies of Sharon without being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Israelis and American Jews do it all the time.

But to be as one-sided and as oblivious to both Israeli suffering and the progress that is taking place as the Presbyterian leaders are today suggests motives that have nothing to do with a genuine desire for peace.

Jewish groups are beginning to accept the obvious conclusion: The time for dialogue with the hostile, irrational Presbyterian leadership has passed and a more confrontational approach is in order, including publicly challenging their motives and their commitment to a fair peace in the region. At the same time, dialogue with other groups that have proven more sensitive and with local Presbyterian groups needs to be increased.

The point should be emphasized over and over again: It’s not just the knee-jerk defenders of Israel and Likudniks who think divestment is a terrible idea, but Jewish groups from across the ideological spectrum.

Jewish leaders worked hard to get through to the Presbyterians, but church leaders weren’t listening; they have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that dialogue is not their goal, a fair peace not their real interest, and they should be dealt with accordingly.