On The Presbyterian Church Resolution—by Peter Eisenstadt

On The Presbyterian Church Resolution
Peter Eisenstadt

Before it becomes old news, a few words on the decision of the Presbyterian Church, USA last week to divest their holdings from a select group of companies that sell military equipment that Israel uses on the West Bank. This has created an enormous volume of commentary. Jewish groups, from J Street rightward, including the Reform movement, have condemned the action of the Presbyterian Church. BDS has become a new litmus test for the American Jewish community, and there are many who feel that unless they condemn the actions of the Presbyterian Church, they will lose their standing in the American Jewish community. The fear is understandable.

My own attitudes towards BDS are complex. Many of its advocates are shrill, uninterested in nuance, and committed to a single unitary state of Palestine, which, unless it is freely agreed to by Jews and Palestinians (which is extremely unlikely) would likely be a disaster and a bloodbath. The proposed academic boycotts of Israeli scholars is reprehensible; what’s needed is dialogue, not cutting off discussion. I was not impressed by the Presbyterian Church’s document (which not affirmed by the church in its recent meeting, “Zionism Unsettled,” which argued that, in its words that “Zionism is a false theology.” Zionism is not a theology, and to traffic in such unhelpful abstractions is a useless as saying “Christianity is a false religion.” Zionism, which comes in many different varieties, arose from the perceptions of Jewish powerlessness in the early 20th century, a perception that was abundantly confirmed in the decades ahead. Israel, for better and for worse, is a product of the tragic history of the Jewish people in the 20th century, and it can’t be argued away. And neither can, regardless of who did what to whom first, Israel’ s legitimate security needs.

My feeling is the

advocates and opponents of BDS alike over-estimate the importance of boycotts and sanctions in ending white-minority rule in South Africa. When the white government there realized, sometime in the late 1980s, that they could no longer control the black majority, serious negotiations began. Outside

pressure helped a bit, but it was the internal situation that forced their hand. I am sure the same situation will prevail in Israel-Palestine. The day when Israelis realize that they can no longer control the West Bank is the day serious negotiations start. And this day is coming.

On the other hand, what the Presbyterian Church voted for was not BDS, but divesting from a few select companies. I don’t know if this sort of pressure does any good, but I can’t see how it can hurt. The notion that it will cause Israel to defensively retreat further into its shell is nonsense. If the Presbyterian Church action, and ones like it, demonstrate to Israel the unpopularity of the occupation, that’s all to the good. I am not a big fan of the word “apartheid” as applied to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, but that is because, like calling someone a Nazi or a racist, it’s a conversation ender, not a conversation starter. If you don’t like apartheid as applied to Israel’s seemingly permanent and discriminatory, military occupation of the West Bank, you are free to choose or coin your own terms, as long as it reflects its harsh reality. If I had been a delegate to the Presbyterian convention, I would have voted for the resolution.

In the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration was conducting its odious “constructive engagement” policy towards the white South African government, they said “of course, we are opposed to apartheid.” But their actions spoke louder than their words. And during the same years, I remember when American Friends of Peace Now did not dare publicly say they were in favor of a two state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem. These days, everyone, including Netanyahu, say they favor two states. But unless one encourages policies that might lead to it, it is a meaningless, empty statement. Those who say that statements like that of the Presbyterian Church might hamper or make two states more difficult, are using the two state rhetoric to mask their support for the status quo. I don’t know if the Presbyterian Church resolution will help bring about two states, but in these days, any creative responsible effort to either bring the sides together, or put pressure on one side or another, must be tried. In this light, the action of the Presbyterian Church is a welcome step forward.