Christians Conflicted About Israel

Christian Palestine solidarity activists. Texas, January 2009.

In a remarkably close vote, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected a motion to divest from three global corporations that are profiting from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its siege of the Gaza Strip. The final tally was 333-331, with two abstentions. It doesn’t get a lot closer than that.

Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now (APN), which opposed the measure, said ” PCUSA deserves credit for amazingly open, serious debate before vote. Many many good people of conscience on both sides of argument,” and that ” I opposed this motion but its failure shouldn’t be cause for celebration, but for reflection.”

I critiqued APN’s statement opposing the motion (you can read that criticism here), but Lara’s statement brings home a different point: the issue of divesting from the occupation is being reasonably discussed. And that means more people are realizing that Israel’s trampling of Palestinian rights is not something they can continue to blithely tolerate.

The arguments Ha’aretz reported against the divestment resolution are considerably less than convincing:

A Caterpillar employee from Illinois complained that commissioners were only being presented one side of the story. “I’ve been an employee of Caterpillar for 37 years. You are being shown the very narrow side of CAT. CAT is the first responder around the world,” he said, noting the company’s work at the Twin Towers after the September 11 attacks. “I am proud to wear this Caterpillar shirt, no matter what happens at this GA.”

The question is not whether Caterpillar products are used for good works elsewhere. Virtually any business can make that claim. Indeed, it actually supports the opposite point: since CAT can make its money in so many productive places, there’s no reason to sell bulldozers to Israel to be weaponized and used to destroy the homes of innocent Palestinians.

One of the PC(USA)’s commissioners was quoted as saying that “Different companies in Israel militarize the bulldozers. Caterpillar can’t stop building at the West Bank.” That’s a truly shallow argument, laced with half-truths. CAT provides Israel with the bulldozers, specially designed for weaponization. It need not do so. CAT sells plenty of heavy duty industrial equipment to many countries, including Israel. There would be only a microscopic loss of revenue if they decided to cease this odious practice. It’s one specific type of bulldozer Israel buys for the express purpose of fitting it with weaponry to operate in occupied territory.

But Matthew Miller of Iowa really shows what the opposition to divestment at the PC(USA) General Assembly was really all about: “I believe an unintended consequence of the divestment will alienate our interfaith Jewish partners in this country. Taking one side over another will privilege Palestinian suffering, not Israelis that are terrorized by their neighbors that seek to eliminate them. This course of action will not have its intended effect; it will achieve nothing but alienation.”

It is fair enough for an American to say he or she cannot relate to Israeli lives. In the US, we do not live surrounded by countries and populations hostile to us. Israelis do, and whether one believes that is more due to Israeli policies than anything else or not, that is simply a day to day reality that most Americans cannot fully understand.

But having said that, to compare Israeli and Palestinian suffering is nothing short of obscene. One need go no farther than a day in West Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, followed by a quick trip to Qalqilya or Hebron to see the difference.

Yes, Israelis have threats in their lives, but, especially these days, Israelis live normal lives for the most part. Even in southern Israel, where rockets from Gaza are a real danger, there is simply no comparison to the lives of Palestinians living under the omnipresent yoke of occupation, with its checkpoints, dispossession, house demolitions, arbitrary arrests, closures, and IDF-protected violence from Israeli settlers.

Put simply and plainly, Israelis enjoy civil, political and human rights. And their days are not so different from ours in the West, with work, school, restaurants and a vibrant night life.

That just isn’t the case for Palestinians, and one need go no farther than the web sites of Israeli human rights groups to see that.

When I worked for B’Tselem, I got to see firsthand not only the human rights violations on which they reported, but the many violations that went unreported because we couldn’t gather enough evidence to make a strong enough case, even though we, from experience and knowledge of the people on the ground, could be reasonably sure that the violations occur.

Israelis live with fear, yes. But Palestinians live every single day with the reality of violent oppression and the denial of rights most Americans, Europeans, Australians, Canadians and others, including Israelis, take for granted.

Yet, Mr. Miller did draw that comparison. And he told us why: he did not want to alienate the church’s Jewish allies.

Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) was quite prominent in supporting the PC(USA)’s divestment proposal. But JVP is not the “Jewish community” Miller is referring to. JVP is, in the end, a one-issue group, dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict and some of the related issues in the Middle East. The Presbyterians work with Jewish groups on a whole host of social issues that have nothing to do with Israel.

Also, many Presbyterians remain vexed over the history of Christian anti-Semitism, a history from which the Presbyterian Church is not free, and which is easily played upon by supporters of Israeli policy who cynically claim that any pressure on Israel must, perforce, be anti-Semitic.

These are, to be sure, understandable concerns. But they do not speak to the question at hand, which is Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights.

And despite the divestment motion being defeated, the closeness of the vote demonstrates that the fear of alienating the Jewish community is becoming diminished as Israeli crimes become clearer. Indeed, with more and more Jews speaking out in opposition to Israeli policies, more and more non-Jews are realizing that siding with the occupation means siding against the Jewish future, and, indeed, against the well-being and best interests of most Israelis.

I’ve long maintained that it is much more expensive and energy-consuming for supporters of Israel’s worst policies to maintain their veil of lies and distortions than it is for people of conscience to break through it. I think the closeness of this vote starts to show how true that is. As MJ Rosenberg tweeted after the vote: ” Wow. All those millions. All those threats. And the (pro-occupation) lobby wins by 2 votes against unpaid activists. It is going down.”

And therein lies the hope for the future.

Photograph courtesy of srizki. Published under a Creative Commons license.


  1. I think the main question i have is how much political influence does PC(USA) have on american policy as opposed to evangelical’s support? the fact that CUFI and other evangelical “pro-israel” organizations have the ability to mobilize many people on the Israel issue is what influences american politics and makes them more heard.

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