Early in 2006, pro-Palestinian activists around the world were downright giddy at the momentum behind their efforts to brand Israel an apartheid state and “divest” accordingly. At the year’s midpoint, however, the political cause that had looked so vibrant is now on the ropes following the defeat dealt it by Presbyterians at the church’s bi-annual conference last month.
Meeting in Birmingham, the 500+ voting members of the Protestant denomination overwhelmingly disavowed the previous assembly’s enthusiastic embrace of initiating “a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” But while the Presbyterians’ ostensible about-face is a huge blow for those wishing to demonize Israel, the issue is far from dead within the church—or, for that matter, with other Christian denominations across the United States.
Why is divestment only down, not out? The answer is best understood through an encounter I had with an elderly Presbyterian woman working the pro-divestment booth in Birmingham.
Her voice falling to a whisper, the white-haired woman trembled as she recounted the horrors she had heard about life in Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. “These poor children were trapped inside their aluminum house for nine months. They couldn’t go to school, they couldn’t even go outside.” Her voice halted. She cried. She tried to compose herself, but she couldn’t right away.
There was no denying her sincerity. And there’s no denying that for most Palestinians, life is not what it was just six years ago. No sane American would willingly trade places with a typical Palestinian. But nine months trapped inside an “aluminum house,” not even able to go outside? That would certainly be plausible—in Beirut in the 1980’s, but not the West Bank in the 21st century. Maybe for a few days during a military incursion, for example, but not for nine months straight.
Simply put, it’s a fiction. An obvious one, at that. But not to the sweet septuagenarian. She believed it to her core.
Deciding to test her actual knowledge of the Middle East, I asked her what year the “occupation” started. There are generally two possible answers: 1) “1967,” which is when Israel took control of Gaza and the West Bank, or 2) “1948,” which is when Israel was created. The latter response means that “occupation” occurs with the mere existence of the Jewish state.
When faced with the question, she fumbled a bit, reached for a piece of literature, and then declared, “Oh, in 1946.” Though she had traveled to the Middle East “several times” by her own count, she sorely lacked even a basic grasp of the facts.
If only she were alone.
Most tellingly, the resolution ultimately adopted by the Presbyterian assembly criticizes Israel for the path of its “security wall.” The barrier is actually only a “wall” for 4% of its total length, and that upgrade was necessitated by Palestinian gunmen who were shooting at civilian cars on streets running directly beside many areas that used to be a fence. But “wall,” of course, conjures up entirely different kinds of images, specifically of Communist East Germany.
Unlike the senior citizen with a genuinely decent heart, though, most of the purveyors of such disinformation know better. Unless they simply refuse to take a sober assessment of the reality on the ground, they know that the primary cause of Palestinian suffering is the tidal wave of suicide bombings since 2000. Before then, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were working daily in Israel, earning solid, middle-class wages, and the Palestinian economy was on the upswing. Now that Israel has had no choice but to seal the border, the Palestinian economy has tanked, and countless lives have been destroyed.
A number of key members of the Presbyterian assembly traveled to the Middle East earlier this year, some as part of organized trips and some on their own, and most who engaged both sides while there came back deeply sympathetic to Israel’s plight. While many news accounts cited the work of Jewish groups as key to swaying the assembly, it was actually pressure from within that proved most vital.
What makes the Presbyterian vote so significant is that it was that very church that two years ago breathed life into mainstream acceptance of divestment. In the interim, two regional chapters of the Methodist church and the Church of England had followed suit. The latter’s vote this February, in fact, was celebrated at the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference later that month, and the 200 or so college students in attendance were told that the upcoming Presbyterian conference could make divestment “unstoppable.”
How quickly things can change. Shortly after the PSM conference, the Church of England’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group decided against selling its shares in Caterpillar, whose equipment is used by the Israeli Defense Forces, since it could find “no compelling evidence” that the company’s products contributed to any human rights abuses.
The newly revised Presbyterian resolution calls instead for “corporate engagement,” which can actually still result in divestment—but not until 2008, at the earliest. In the meantime, warns Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, efforts to brand the Jewish state the new South Africa “will not go away.”
Hopefully, though, at least some of the shocking ignorance will.
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