This week probably will not be easy for Presbyterians. False accusations of anti-Semitism impugning the motives and integrity of the Church will hurt. But their work is vitally important and offers a tremendous opportunity to hold Israel to account for 43 years of occupation of Palestinian territory.
For decades, I have faced vicious ad hominem attacks as both a Christian and a Palestinian simply for daring to insist that the Palestinian people should live free and not be subject to Israeli occupation. Yes, notwithstanding the absurdity of the language, it occasionally hurts. But Presbyterians under verbal attack may be surprised at the growing number of Palestinians and Jews they find at their side. The rhetoric of the Israel lobby is ferocious because it seeks to obscure the cruel policies – Gazans put on a “diet” resulting in child stunting and malnutrition, the apartheid wall, white phosphorous used on civilians – enacted by the Israeli government.
When Katharine Henderson and Gustav Niebuhr call in the Washington Post for Presbyterians to “listen to all involved, including American Jews, essential partners who were not consulted in the report’s preparation,” Presbyterians should bear in mind that the American Jewish community is not monolithic and goes beyond the Israel lobby Henderson and Niebuhr evidently had in mind. The white community in the American South was not monolithic, the white community in apartheid South Africa was not monolithic, and Jews in the US and Israel are not monolithic.
In fact, a growing number of Jews support Palestinian freedom and some go so far as to support a campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel – and Palestinians here and in the diaspora are working with them every day. I am no more surprised by this than African Americans were surprised to find whites of good will who supported bus boycotts and other economic instruments of change to overcome Jim Crow.
The Presbyterians’ Middle East Study Committee is right to speak out against both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. But when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would be an abdication of moral responsibility to regard the parties as equals in a conflict as B’nai B’rith does when it denigrates the Committee’s report for “dramatically emphasiz[ing] perceived Israeli wrongdoing and Palestinian suffering.”
No, one side is occupied and one is occupier. One side is subjugated and the other subjugates. As in South Africa, there is a clear line. Therefore, the Committee’s strongly voiced concerns regarding Israeli policy make logical and moral sense.
The Committee’s proposal to stop US military aid to Israel until such time as the settlement enterprise ceases is a good starting point. Anyone who shrank in horror at Israel’s use of American weaponry last year in the Gaza Strip can support such a proposal – as can anyone who recognizes how ongoing settlement and colonization is foreclosing on a viable Palestinian state.
But the Presbyterians do not control Congress’s purse strings despite the fears of some in the Israel lobby. They do control their own investment portfolio.
Therefore, I support individual overtures that move beyond the Committee’s call, which “Strongly denounces Caterpillar’s continued profit-making from non-peaceful uses of its products and presses Caterpillar to review carefully its involvement in obstacles to a just and lasting peace in Israel-Palestine and to take affirmative steps to end its complicity in the violation of human rights.”
With Israel having just announced plans to raze 22 more homes in occupied East Jerusalem, a strong and timely signal could be sent to Caterpillar by divesting Presbyterian holdings in the company. Presbyterians have already engaged Caterpillar in good faith and gotten nowhere. Israeli retrofitted Caterpillar bulldozers continue to destroy Palestinian lives and homes. Moving now to divest from Caterpillar would not be overly precipitous. Failure to act will indicate to Israel and Caterpillar a willingness to wring hands, but not take meaningful nonviolent action. We must vigorously seize upon such nonviolence as a powerful moral means to advance freedom and justice for both peoples and work together to stave off a possible future that devolves into further violence, ill-will, and misery.
While the Presbyterians “affirm the legitimacy of Israel as a state,” they rightly recognize the “continuing occupation of Palestine (West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem) to be illegitimate, illegal under international law, and an enduring threat to peace in the region.” Without strong and immediate nonviolent action challenging the Netanyahu government’s policies, the stated U.S. goal of a two-state solution will soon be derailed by Israeli settlement activity. Many Israel lobby voices will urge the Presbyterians not to act this week. But as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said in March of 1968, drawing on his spirituality, “…there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”
Dr. Hanan Ashrawi is an elected member of both the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee and the Palestinian Legislative Council.