Church Divestment

Wow – Well last week got away from me! Time to catch up on another divestment-related issue that I’ve not talked about yet: the churches.

A number of people have seen talk of Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) breaking out on many campuses, Web sites and other forums (including the upcoming Durban II, which promises to be as big of a fiasco as Durban I), and express legitimate concern that the BDS campaign is a major threat facing Israel and its supporters.

But keep in mind that what seems like on BDS campaign is really two:

  • The BDS noise machine consisting of people calling for boycott, divestment and sanction against the Jewish state, or using BDS as a hook to hang their propaganda regarding “Apartheid Israel”
  • The BDS program of trying to get respected, well-known institutions to sign onto the boycott/divestment message, thus providing anti-Israel protestors the chance to say “Hey, it’s not just us who say Israel is an Apartheid state! Look [fill-in-the-name-of-a-famous-university-church-union-city-or-other-institution-here] agrees with us.”

A free society provides limitless opportunity for people to make noise, regardless of the quality of their arguments, or their level of personal hygiene. Given this, we shouldn’t confuse the volume of BDS “conversation” on the Web or elsewhere with actual political success. Given anti-Israel advocate’s unspoken alliance with wealth and power, they will always have a bigger megaphone than those fighting for human rights of people like Tibetans or Kurds. Whether this noise machine is talking about BDS, Apartheid, War Crimes or some other imagined Israel crime or hoped-for punishment, we shouldn’t assume that increased volume or increased focus on one accusation or proposed retribution vs. another constitutes progress for BDS forces.

In fact, a dispassionate look at where BDS stands today (vs. five years ago) vis-à-vis progress in getting respected institutions to sign onto their project shows a movement in retreat. Given the level of invective involved with the noise-machine noted above, dispassion on this subject is not the easiest thing to maintain. But if you look at where divestment was in 2004 vs. where it is now, you see a movement that has actually lost substantial ground, which is why it has to substitute pretend victories (Hampshire, Motorola) for real ones.

This is where the churches, notably the Mainline Protestant churches come in. In 2004, these churches (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists) were the anchor for the entire US divestment project. Yes, divestment petitions were drawn up on many campuses around the country, but actual divestment was immediately rejected by school leaders, which provided students (the vast majority of which also rejected divestment) to routinely out-petition divestment advocates ten to one. During this period, it was the official Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUSA), whose 2004 decision to explore “phased, selective divestment” of church retirement funds from companies doing business in Israel (a decision replicated by leaders of other Protestant groups) that gave divestment advocates a hook upon which to hang a story of success. Thus these churches provided divestment advocates the oxygen they needed to push their program into not just other churches, but also universities, cities and unions.

The reasons the Presbyterians became aligned with anti-Israel forces calling for divestment are complex and interesting (too complex to sum up in one blog posting, although two great resources on the issue are Will Spotts’ Pride and Prejudice and Rabbi Yehiel Poupko’s review of contemporary Christian attitudes towards the Jewish state “Looking at Them Looking at Us” which is unfortunately not available online).

For purposes of this discussion, the important point is that these churches walked away from their divestment stance in 2006 once church members (who hated divestment) were given the opportunity to address a pro-divestment position that had been supported primarily by official church leadership. Even after the Lebanon war, these churches showed no interest in returning to the issue, voting again in 2008 to reject divestment by overwhelming majorities. While a few pro-divestment holdouts still refer to the Presbyterians and Methodists as allies, this represents either wishful thinking that these churches will return to their 2004 position, or intentional deception which characterizes anti-Israel activism of a small number of individual churches with the church as a whole which rejected divestment (twice) by margins of 90-100% over the last two years.

This history provides important lessons now that BDS has once-again become the strategy of choice for anti-Israel agitators. First, the ability of divestment activists to capitalize on even a fragile victory (as the churches turn out to have been), demonstrate the need for eternal vigilance by members of civic organizations whose institutions have been targeted for manipulation. Secondly, that the greatest threat facing BDS programs is not the all-powerful-Israeli-lobby (booga, booga, booga), but the movement’s own excesses and reputation of divestment as a political loser.

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