May 02, 2005

Divestment From Israel Part II

Last week I posted some of my thoughts and concerns regarding the move among some churches organizations to divest from Israel as tool to promote peace.

I meant to follow up with comments regarding the April 29th JTA news piece about one of the Jewish responses to this move.


NEW YORK, April 29 (JTA) — As a growing number of Protestant churches consider imposing economic sanctions against Israel, the Jewish community is threatening to abandon interfaith dialogue.

“Any Protestant denomination that would consider the weapon of economic sanctions to be unilaterally and prejudicially used against the State of Israel, or those who would hold the State of Israel to a standard different from any other sovereign state, creates an environment which makes constructive dialogue almost impossible,” mainstream Jewish defense groups and the three main religious streams stated in an April 22 letter to Protestant leaders.

The letter is considered the strongest language that Jewish groups have used to date on the issue.

I was happy to see this letter and think that we need to present our side very clearly. I also think that we must be more proactive in confronting this topic because it is very easy to take a very simplistic perspective and make this divestment appear to be a legitimate tool.

But I also think that ending dialogue is a mistake. Now is the time to be very active and to make it very clear that this is unacceptable and why. If we shut down communication we lose the ability to do this from the inside and that could be problematic in the future.


The Protestant pursuit of divestment is not limited to America: The Geneva-based World Council of Churches, a predominantly European consortium, passed a resolution in February encouraging churches to follow the initiative of the Presbyterian Church USA and consider divesting from Israel.

Many Jewish observers have been stunned by the swirl of activity.

“I think it’s one of the stranger things I’ve seen,” said David Elcott, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “I don’t understand why this issue would come up now,” when Israel is taking steps for peace with the Palestinians.

Elcott said the Jewish community has been “incredibly consistent” in maintaining interfaith dialogue since the Presbyterian move.

I think that the next section answers the question. Hasbara is a huge problem and it always has been. Many people enjoy a simple point-of-view. It is easy to look at pictures of people throwing rocks at tanks and see it as the story of an underdog. It is harder to express in those pictures the layers upon layers of complexity and the reasons why some measures are necessary.


Jewish officials cite several reasons for the divestment trend in the Protestant community:

• Protestant churches are responding to Palestinian Christians and their supporters, who believe sanctions will force Israel to make concessions and will help the Christians’ standing with Palestinian Muslims.

Churches in the region have sent representatives to American churches to tell of Israel’s alleged injustices against Palestinian Christians. Meanwhile, U.S. church groups that have visited the region hear a primarily anti-Israel narrative.


Again this tells me that now is the time to continue dialogue to redouble efforts to provide a balanced perspective and not just a onesided point-of-view as to what is happening.

• Some feel Jewish groups have lagged in their maintenance of interfaith work. While Palestinian supporters are advocating their view, “we have not done a very good job of going into churches and advocating a counter point of view,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

In addition, interfaith dialogue has focused on what binds the faiths, not what divides them, said Bretton-Granatoor. As a result, Protestants and Jews have not fully explored each other’s views on the Middle East.

“We have never stopped thinking about Israel as the very center of our faith, but the Christians don’t understand it,” he said. “To them, our attachment to Israel is 19th century colonialism.”

• Mainstream Protestant churches, which skew to the left, subscribe to a dogma called “liberation theology.” They aim to uplift the “weak and the downtrodden” and they believe that the Palestinians fill that role, said Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.

Other Christian denominations have a different perspective. Evangelicals subscribe to a Christian Zionist ideology, which calls for the ingathering of Jews to Israel as a precursor for Armageddon.

Because Catholics are represented by the Vatican, they have diplomatic relations to make their case, and Catholic-Jewish relations are relatively strong. Last year, the Vatican issued a joint statement with Jewish officials calling anti-Zionism anti-Semitism.

Jewish groups aim to continue engaging the Protestant community on grass-roots and national levels and are seeking voices within the church to oppose divestment.

A coalition of Jews and Protestants will meet May 13 in Washington, and an interfaith mission to Israel is planned for September.

“We have had our fingers crossed and we had done our work pretty well, I thought,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. But “it appears that we’re going to have to have a broader conversation, denomination by denomination.”

According to the JCPA’s Felson, “the divestment conversation casts such a shadow that dialogue on other issues really becomes secondary.”


The more I read about this the more I am convinced that there needs to be more communication. We may reach a point at which we determine that there is a more serious underlying issue in why the move to divest exists, but then again we may not.

But it is critical to try and get to that point because this has the potential to impact relations for years to come. It is not a matter of being subservient, because we are not. It is an issue of confronting a challenge head on so that it can be handled in the most effective and proactive manner.

Life is about how you act, not react to the world around you.

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