Jewish Groups Scramble To Head Off Divestment Push
By Eric J. Greenberg
October 1, 2004
As the push to cut off investments in Israel gains momentum in
Protestant circles, Jewish organizations and their allies on Capitol
Hill are racing to neutralize the burgeoning divestment movement.
This week, following a tense three-hour summit with upset Jewish
communal officials, leaders of the Louisville-based Presbyterian
Church (USA), with 2.5 million members, said they were determined
to go ahead with their recently approved plan to divest selectively
from Israel. The interfaith meeting came just days after Anglican
Church officials visiting Israel said that they would push for consideration
of a divestment plan to protest Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.
"The Presbyterian divestment could potentially create a snowball effect
and resurrect what had been a moribund issue," said the interfaith affairs
director of the Anti-Defamation League, Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor.
"Now it has provoked the Anglicans, and we know it will not end there.
We have to send a clear message to every church that they will have to
face a united Jewish community on this issue."
In an effort to head off anti-Israel divestment efforts, a bipartisan group
of 13 congressmen sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce
stating that such campaigns violate America's laws regarding the Arab
boycott of Israel. The letter, which was initiated by the Zionist Organization
of America, was sent to the Commerce's Office of Anti-boycott Compliance.
The congressmembers urged the office to "investigate the national boycott
campaign against Israel, shut down the illegal divestment campaigns and
impose the appropriate penalties."
A second bipartisan group of congressmen sent a letter to the Presbyterian
Church's chief executive, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, calling for the
church to abandon its recently adopted divestment plan. The letter,
organized by Howard Berman, a California Democrat, termed the church's
divestment policy "irresponsible, counterproductive and morally bankrupt."
The letter stated that the resolution "leads us to only one conclusion: The
Presbyterian Church has knowingly gone on record calling for jeopardizing
the existence of the State of Israel."
Some critics raised concerns that the effort by congressmen to insert
themselves in the affairs of a religious group is an assault on the
separation of church and state.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, sounded
a similarly harsh note during his opening speech at the Tuesday meeting
with Presbyterian leaders. The gathering was held at the Reform movement's
headquarters in Manhattan.
Referring to several anti-Israel resolutions, or Overtures, approved by the
church during the summer ρρ including one assailing the erection of
Israel's secuiryt fence ρρ Yoffie declared: "Do the authors of these
Overtures value Jewish lives and Palestinian lives equally? Do they mourn
the death of Israeli children in the same way and with the same intensity
that they mourn the death of Palestinian children?"
"In your Overture, Israel's occupation is evil, as are, by implication,
those who carry it out," Yoffie said in his opening statement. "And yet
the word 'evil' appears nowhere else in the Overture. No Palestinian action,
no matter how horrific, is categorized as evil. If the blowing up of Israeli
children on a Tel Aviv bus is not an evil act and a terrorist act, then
what is it?"
Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements took part in the
meeting, along with several Jewish public-affairs agencies including the
Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the
American Jewish Committee.
After the meeting, Kirkpatrick, the church's chief executive, declined
to call for the reversal of the anti-Israel divestment resolution, despite
entreaties during his first face-to-face meeting on the subject with
Jewish communal leaders.
"I do not leave this meeting feeling that the decision by the General
Assembly should be reversed," Kirkpatrick said at a press conference.
He did, however, pledge to keep Jewish leaders more informed on the
Leaders from both sides also said they would look into organizing joint
trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as increasing
interfaith dialogue on the local level and among seminary students.
In November, the church's special committee on socially responsible
investing is expected to begin deciding which American companies
that do business in Israel are harmful to Palestinians and, hence, subject
to divestment. The committee is scheduled to make recommendations in
March to the church's board of directors. The church has about $7 billion
in investments, but only a small percentage is related to Israel.
A decision by the General Assembly on which companies to divest from
would not be made until the next national conference, in 2006, Kirkpatrick
said. He also stressed that divestment would be used as a last resort, only
after the companies in question were urged to attempt to change Israel's
policies toward the Palestinians. He named Caterpillar Inc. as one company
that would be targeted, because its bulldozers have been used to demolish
Tuesday's interfaith summit also comes as the Institute on Religion and
Democracy, a conservative Washington think tank, issued a report accusing
mainline Protestant churches of disproportionately attacking Israel, while
letting repressive regimes known for human rights abuses, like Saudi Arabia
and Egypt, off the hook.
The report stated: "It is not unreasonable to ask whether anti-Jewish
animus may play some role in the church's skewed human rights advocacy."
The National Council of Churches USA, a coalition representing mainline
Protestant groups, responded by criticizing the report as significantly
flawed, and by arguing that the conservative think tank was attempting to
drive a wedge between the Jewish community and liberal churches.
"The most unfortunate part of the IRD's report is its apparent attempt to
hurt Jewish-Christian relations by quite blatantly planting seeds of
suspicion that the mainline churches are antisemitic," said the national
council's general secretary, the Rev. Dr. Robert Edgar. "The IRD wrongly
and dangerously equates any criticism of the government of Israel and its
policies with antisemitism."