Somerville Divestment Revisited – Reputation

This next set of essays were written during the second year of campaigning against BDS in Somerville, MA (2005) when divestment proponents tried to get a divestment measure they failed to get past the legislature onto the city-wide ballot.

A description of how that issue played out can be found here.

Few outside of British academic circles had ever heard of the Association of University Teachers (AUT), a UK-based union of university level instructors and professionals, until earlier this year when the organization voted to boycott two Israeli universities on a series of trumped up charges.

For veterans of divestment debates in the US and abroad, the details of the AUT debate will sound familiar.  An organization whose primary mission is support of its members through collective bargaining and other union services, the AUT also had a “social justice” constituency that was hijacked by a group of anti-Israel activists, led by Birmingham lecturer Sue Blackwell (an declared anti-fascist with a preference for Palestinian Flagwear who nevertheless links her Web site to various Nazi organizations).

Through relentless parliamentary maneuvering within a bureaucratic organization, Blackwell and her allies managed to pass a resolution calling for British academics to break all ties with Bar-Ilan and Haifa Universities.  World reaction to the move was swift.  Jewish groups scorned the decision while anti-Israel activists hailed it as another “victory.”  More importantly, academics worldwide condemned the AUT’s assault on intellectual freedom, and AUT members revolted against the usurpation of their name by a small group of fanatics, overturning the decision in an overwhelming vote that reversed the short-lived AUT boycott policy.

By then, the damage was done.  If AUT is known outside of UK and teaching circles today, it is known as an organization that was willing to sacrifice the one virtue upon which its reputation rested, the value of unimpeded academic freedom, upon the alter of anti-Israel activism.

Seen through the AUT prism, the Somerville divestment debate represents a similar attempt to “leverage” the reputation of an institution, in this case the city of Somerville, towards a narrow political end.  All of their talk of “fairness” and “evening the playing field” is simply a ruse to appeal to the better nature of Somerville’s leaders and citizens, the better nature that is the basis of the city’s reputation as a friend of human rights.  The goal (as boasted on various anti-Israel Web sites during last year’s divestment debate) is to “sign on” Somerville to their cause so that the city’s name, a name built on its reputation, can be used to maneuver other cities and towns to also join the boycott-Israel bandwagon.

I’ve thought a lot about reputation recently as more and more “mainline” Protestant churches have followed the lead of the Presbyterian Church which last year started the machinery that would lead to divestment of church assets in companies doing business with the Jewish state.  As bragged on the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project’s (SC-SDP’s) Web site, the New England Methodist Church and Anglican Church in the UK are ready to follow the Presbyterian’s down divestment’s blind alley.

As with the AUT, these churches have convinced themselves that an economic attack on a tiny Jewish state is a demonstration of the highest virtues of their faith: fairness, peace, human rights.  Yet one only need look at the spurious charges, the faux history, the absolute unwillingness to consider the other side that underlay each church’s resolution to understand that divestment is a gross example of little more than institutional bullying.

As we were all taught in Saturday morning cartoons from the 1970s, most bullies are actually cowards.  And these “mainline” churches certainly have a lot to fear.  Their flocks are diminishing rapidly, even as competing faiths like evangelical Christianity and Islam are expanding rapidly.  It’s been years since these churches had a major voice in a political or moral debate and when they have tried (as in their stand on the Iraq War or last year’s presidential election), they have found themselves on the losing side.

As their relevance declines as rapidly as their numbers, the leadership of the churches pushing divestment have found they can do something: they can bully one of the smallest states in the world, even as they fail to put their assets where their mouths are when confronting the rich and powerful.

Yet in taking these actions, these churches are mortgaging more than their own reputations.  Just as the AUT that was willing to wreak havoc on academic freedom under the guise of protecting it, these bullying mainline churches are using the voice of religious moral authority in general, the same voice that proved so important during the desegregation, anti-Vietnam War and anti-Apartheid movements (movements supported in partnership with American Jews) to support narrow and partisan ends pushed by a small but highly vocal minority.

If it’s been hard to take the voice of the Church of England or the Presbyterians seriously during serious moral and political debates in recent years, how much harder will it be to listen to any religious authority in the future when the public realizes that this authority is susceptible to hijacking and moral blackmail by the rich and powerful against the small and vulnerable?

Even worse, these churches are also mortgaging assets they do not own: the ethical power of social investment, the economic power of the boycott, responsibly wielded as it was during the anti-Apartheid era, in order to float a morally bankrupt Israel divestment policy.  One can imagine a time in the near future when a corporation or nation that truly deserves censure can point to the actions of the churches as a demonstration of how legitimate boycotts directed at them are just another example of partisan politics wrapped in ill-fitting moral garments.

Just as Somerville’s aldermen (and, one hopes, its citizens) realize that the reputation of the city was not theirs to give away, one hopes that leaders and followers in cities, churches, schools around the world will reject the cynical lures of divestment, refusing to sell their reputations, and the reputations of what they represent, to those most willing to ruthlessly exploit the language of virtue.

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