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"A Still More Excellent Way" Beyond Divestment: An Open Letter to Presbyterians
June 27, 2012
“A STILL MORE EXCELLENT WAY” BEYOND DIVESTMENT: AN OPEN LETTER TO PRESBYTERIANS
This summer, the PCUSA is once again facing a polarizing argument over the issue of divestment from corporations engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in Israel/Palestine. Those arguing in favor of divestment say that the time for mere words is over, that the Presbyterian Church (USA) needs to band together with other people of faith and goodwill and take concrete actions to help end the occupation of the Palestinian Territories and create a just and lasting peace for both peoples.
The question is not whether the church should take action to promote a just and lasting peace in Israel/Palestine, a peace created in a jointly negotiated solution that establishes freedom, self-determination, security, prosperity, and a just sharing of the land and its natural resources for both peoples. No person of conscience (and certainly no faithful Christian) could oppose such a goal, and as Christians we are called to put our faith into action.
Divestment is one possible action, and our Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (“MRTI”) is recommending that Presbyterians take such action against three companies whom they have found to be both unethical and unrepentant in their activities in Israel/Palestine. As a result, divestment has become the focus of debate around this General Assembly.
We believe making divestment the focal question of the Assembly is a grave mistake. Not because divestment is inherently wrong; we affirm that divestment is an important tool that can and has been used successfully in pursuing nonviolent social or political change. But that is the point: divestment is a tool, a method, a tactic that is part of a larger strategy for achieving a greater moral good, not a good in itself. So the question should be: what is the most faithful and effective method the PC(USA) can employ in its pursuit of justice and peace in Israel/Palestine? We believe that MRTI’s recommendation to divest selectively from these three companies is not that method.
To explain why, it is helpful to consider the most famous example of divestment as a tool for promoting social and political change: the South African anti-apartheid movement. The anti-apartheid divestment campaign began in the early to mid-1960s, but it hit its real stride in the mid-1980s. In 1983, South Africans formed the United Democratic Front (“UDF,” a nonviolent resistance umbrella group) , a massive coalition of churches, trade unions, civic associations, youth organizations, and a range of nonviolent activist groups. The UDF declared a strategy of “ungovernability” to pursue these goals, making the townships and “homelands” ungovernable by the white regime through public protests, rent strikes, work strikes, and so on. Christian churches were at the forefront of this movement, and the global church supported them in both word and action, including significant financial support for the South African Council of Churches and other church activist organizations.
The global divestment campaign, then, worked to exert pressure on South Africa from the outside to support the UDF’s campaign on the inside. Initially, there was a debate over whether divestment should be comprehensive or selective; those arguing for a selective divestment felt that corporations that treated blacks and other people of color fairly in the workplace should be encouraged. In 1977, the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a prominent African-American pastor with corporate board experience, created the Sullivan Principles to provide criteria and a reporting structure for the ethical conduct of business in South Africa. But while it motivated some important changes in corporate conduct, it became clear by the mid-1980s that this approach was not effective in bringing change on its own, and Rev. Sullivan himself called for full divestment from South Africa.
Furthermore, full divestment was only part of the strategy against South Africa. Divestment was designed to promote corporate disinvestment, meaning corporations pulling their operations out of South Africa entirely; shareholders sold their shares in protest of corporations that wanted to continue profiting in any way from business in and with South Africa. Divestment/disinvestment, in turn, was part of a larger global movement that urged boycotts of companies doing business in South Africa and comprehensive sanctions against the regime to cripple its access to weapons, oil, and most significantly, bank loans, which had the potential to bring down the regime through an economic default.
As an overall strategy, then, the anti-apartheid Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (“BDS”) movement was designed to comprehensively isolate South Africa from the international community, delegitimizing it as a state and destabilizing its economy in order to bring down the apartheid government and create a new, unified, multiracial democracy. The Presbyterian Church (USA) shared those goals and was a part of that movement, as it should have been.
But if we apply this history to the current debate over divestment and Israel, we can see several significant problems with the use of divestment by the PC(USA):
1. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a completely different position on the state of Israel than it had on South Africa. The General Assemblies of the PC(USA) have consistently affirmed Israel’s right to exist and have supported a jointly negotiated two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In South Africa, however, divestment was used specifically to undermine the regime’s legitimacy (i.e., its right to exist) and its economy (i.e., its capacity to exist). This is why many opponents of divestment from Israel argue that divestment is not merely an attempt to end the occupation, but an attempt to delegitimize Israel and challenge its right to exist; that was, in fact, precisely what divestment was used to do against South Africa. This argument is bolstered by the calls of many BDS advocates to abandon a two-state solution and embrace a one-state solution. If the PC(USA) wants to maintain its historic commitments to Israel’s right to exist and to a two-state solution to the conflict as part of its witness for justice and peace for both Palestinians and Israelis, a South African-style comprehensive divestment campaign works against those goals, not in support of them.
2. MRTI is recommending divestment from three companies on the basis of their corporate conduct; it is a selective divestment process, not a comprehensive one. But the successful divestment campaign in South Africa was part of a comprehensive Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement; focusing on corporate engagement (the Sullivan Principles) was shown to have little effect on the systemic issues of the conflict. We affirm wholeheartedly that corporate engagement is a vital and powerful social witness of the church, but by definition its impact is on corporate conduct, not on government policy. Like the Sullivan Principles, it simply does not provide enough economic or moral leverage to bring systemic change on the ground in Israel/Palestine, nor is it even designed to do so. The only possibly effective divestment process would be as part of a comprehensive Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel. However, that would require us to move away from our clear commitments to both Israel’s existence and a 2-state solution and to seek “regime change” in Israel instead (see point 1 above). If selective divestment through corporate engagement is ineffective in changing government policy, and comprehensive divestment through a BDS campaign is unacceptable, another method is necessary to achieve our goals.
3. The South African example does provide an example of a powerful and effective method for systemic change: a massive, national movement of nonviolent action. Currently, there is no movement among Palestinians that could be considered equivalent to the South African UDF. This is not to say that there is no nonviolent movement; on the contrary, there are many Palestinian civil society organizations dedicated to nonviolent action, and regular nonviolent actions occur against the Occupation. But, so far, nothing analogous to the South African UDF in terms of national size, scope, action and moral authority has emerged. So if working concretely for an end to the conflict should be part of the church's social witness (and we believe it should), the Church should be helping Palestinians create and lead their own unified and compelling nonviolent action movement. This would require a significant investment of time, thought, resources and action from both the church and our Palestinian partners. Selective divestment is a poor substitute for this work; it feels like active participation, but selling a few shares in three companies requires no real commitment from us as individuals or as a church to actually engage the conflict and work concretely and effectively for its resolution. Jesus did not say, "blessed are those who feel like peacemakers"; we need to actually engage in the hard and risky work of peacemaking. There is no question that large-scale, coordinated, nonviolent action creates significant leverage for systemic change; history, including our own nation’s history, is rife with powerful and successful examples.
4. If the church helped Palestinians build an internal nonviolent movement for change, it could also help build an external (global) nonviolent movement for change which could partner with them. This external movement could be truly multifaith, uniting a wide range of Christians, Muslims, and Jews (both in the USA and in Israel) in concrete action. The multifaith dimension to this external movement is crucial. In South Africa, the religious dynamics were largely intra-Christian; both the apartheid state and the liberation movement defended their positions on the basis of Christian commitments. In Israel/Palestine, however, the religious dimensions are quite obviously multifaith; a strategy that ignores or actively rejects any of the key religious traditions in the region (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism) is doomed to failure. Unfortunately, there are some who would urge exactly that approach. They argue that that Jews will "never" criticize Israel, and so the church should shrug off their objections and proceed with divestment or even full-scale BDS. But this accusation is patently false; within Israel, there is passionate debate and dissent over governmental policy in general and the occupation in particular, and American Jews have a similarly wide range of opinions. But our flirtation with divestment is keeping a broad range of Jews, those who are both committed Zionists and deeply concerned about ending the occupation and establishing a two-state solution, from aligning with us. As a result, we are dangerously close to losing our credibility and connection with one of the key constituencies capable of working with us for change, because they cannot reconcile our statements seeking a two-state solution with our potential actions that would effectively seek otherwise.
5. Finally, the hallmark of the South African divestment campaign was its ecumenical and global reach. A broad, ecumenical, American Christian consensus for divestment worked in concert with a transnational movement advocating for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions to bring an end to the South African Regime. But the other ecumenical Christian churches that divested from South Africa have all rejected the use of divestment in Israel/Palestine already. The United Methodist Church did so just a few months ago when faced with the exact same recommendation to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard. The Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church have explicitly rejected the use of divestment in Israel/Palestine in their position statements, and both those traditions have direct confessional ties to Palestinian Christians (which the Presbyterian Church does not). This alone should give the PC(USA) pause.
Far from validating divestment, an analysis of the South African precedent for divestment reveals significant problems with transferring that approach to Israel/Palestine. So does this relegate us to back to mere resolutions calling for change? Certainly not. We agree the time for mere words and symbolic gestures is over. The PCUSA should indeed pursue concrete actions that address the particular dimensions of the conflict and which promote a “win-win” solution that ensures the freedom, dignity, security, and economic viability of both peoples. We believe this commitment involves work in three spheres: public life, civil society, and economics.
In public life, this action would include seriously engaging other Christian, Jewish and Muslim partners in the U.S and in Israel/Palestine who are working for a viable, thriving, independent Palestinian state and a democratic Israel with a Jewish majority within secure borders. For the PC(USA), this level of engagement has reached a particularly low point since the last General Assembly because no staff person has been appointed for interfaith affairs at the national level. Such engagement can and should include honest expressions of concern, joint (and separate) political advocacy, and tangible support for and participation in nonviolent action both here and in the region. History shows us that this sort of sustained and coordinated effort has the best chance for bringing a sense of urgency for authentic political negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to end the conflict, along with effective U.S. and international engagement to assist.
In civil society, this action would involve supporting people-to-people programs that promote engagement and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Many of these exist and, although they cannot solve the conflict at a systemic level, they are nonetheless powerful in creating experiences for people to see that the “other side” are human beings with similar hopes and fears for the future, which builds the possibility for each side to see the other as a “partner for peace,” thus giving credence to political negotiations.
And finally, there is the question of economics. Multiple General Assemblies of the PC(USA) have affirmed the approach of “pro-active investment” in the Palestinian Territories as a means of changing the facts on the ground toward a more hopeful and viable future for both peoples. The West Bank economy has been experiencing significant economic growth since 2008, at the very time that much of the global economy has been in crisis. Although still an emerging market, investment opportunities exist and capital is needed to develop the businesses, jobs, and local capital which will be needed for any future state. Economic development also has the potential to change the “facts on the ground” in ways that make a negotiated two-state solution a desirable and viable option. Thus, this approach is not simply smart and effective economics; it is prophetic action. When Jerusalem was surrounded and under siege, with hopes all but gone for its independence, the prophet Jeremiah was called by God to go and buy his cousin’s field there. He took the deeds and put them in a jar to last a long time. He did this as a prophetic investment in the future of Jerusalem, a way of preparing for the fulfillment of God’s promise that “houses, fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” [Jer. 32:15]. We believe that promise includes both Palestinians and Israelis in that land, and we believe God is calling us to help make that promise a reality.
We, the undersigned*, believe that the PCUSA are called to be “Repairers of the Breach,” not passive bystanders, and certainly not the creators of more division and conflict. Let us take real action for human rights, for justice for Palestinians, and security for Israel, with the aim of supporting a two state solution that is the shared goal of the vast majority of people in Israel/Palestine and the Presbyterian Church (USA).