PCUSA Divestment – Follow Up

I was planning to do a final follow up on the goings on at the PCUSA General Assembly last week, which would tie in a couple of more recent events (including the Episcopalians’ recent decision to join the Presbyterians and Methodists in rejecting divestment).

But as luck would have it, a request came in to do a PCUSA follow up piece for Peter Beinart’s Open Zion blog.  This was followed by a response of the “By Losing We Actually Won” variety, written by someone I strongly suspect to be a frequent anonymous commenter who’s been spending time with us lately.  And in response to his response, I just published the piece I would have written here which pretty much surveys the BDS state of the union after their zero-for-three showing with the Mainline Protestant Churches this year.

So those of you who still need their fix of post-GA commentary, I suggest you check out these articles (as well as any comments they generate).

As one last thought, some of you may wonder why I decided to publish something on Peter Beinart’s site, give that I have been quite critical of him in the past.  The short answer is that I’m happy to get the “BDS Loses Again” word out wherever I can.

But in the back of my mind I am hoping that the man behind Open Zion might come to understand that BDS – whether the full-blown variety he’s letting me criticize on his site, or the narrower “just-boycott-the-settlements” type he advocated for on the pages of the New York Times – always requires a community/institution/organization to do the boycotting, divesting or sanctioning.

And whether those boycotts are defined narrowly or broadly, the message the “I-Hate-Israel” crowd will always be crowing is that “The well-respected [fill-in-the-blank] organization agrees with us that Israel is an Apartheid state, alone in the world at deserving economic punishment!” (with that blank filled in by the Presbyterians, Methodists, Hampshire College, City of Somerville and other parties who never asked to become a battlefield in the Middle East conflict).

In a world where some people are more than ready to exploit the best nature of others for political gain, we all need to be extremely careful before providing an opening to people ready to turn places like the Presbyterian Church into a club with which to beat their political adversaries.  And it is this lesson that I hope reaches the right ears as much as my general message about the true nature of BDS.

TIAA-CREF Hoax – Clarification

After watching the Presbyterians vote down divestment another 3-4 times on Friday (and seeing them boo someone trying to continue to drag it back on the agenda), I decided I could take a couple of days off before wrapping up the PCUSA story.

But before that, it’s time to keep a promise I made before the Presbyterians took center stage to clarify any remaining confusion over the recent TIAA-CREF divestment story/hoax.

Now that a week or so has passed before that story broke, we can now say with certainty that any story indicating TIAA-CREF itself has engaged in BDS activity (i.e., politically motivated divestment from Israel) is unambiguously false.

The company still maintains close to a billion dollars worth of investments in Caterpillar Tractor, and they have made statements before, during and since the recent “divestment” announcement that they are neither making investment or divestment decisions based on Middle East politics (Israel-related or otherwise), nor are they responding to any political campaign (by Jewish Voice for Peace or anyone else) to make politically motivated divestment choices.

So stories that announce or imply that CREF has done anything but make automatic buy and sell choices based on existing indexes (financial or otherwise), especially those like this one that assign specific human and political motivation to such decisions, should be seen for what they are: a deliberate attempt to deceive the media and the public.

The second story associated with recent events has to do not with TIAA-CREF but with MSCI, an indexing organization that is followed by CREF and others.  This organization, which maintains an investment index based on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues, did recently remove Caterpillar from its list of approved investments.  And because MSCI indexes are followed by TIAA-CREF, this is the reason why CREF removed Caterpillar from the one fund it maintains that is tied to MSCI’s ESG-related recommendations.

Now to be fair, MSCI did release a statement saying that “The key factors determining the rating include a January 2012 labor dispute and subsequent plant closing in Canada, an on-going controversy associated with use of the company’s equipment in the occupied Palestinian territories, management of environmental issues, and employee safety.”

But the company also made another statement indicating that they use an “established methodology” to determine which companies are listed and de-listed.  But, as previously noted, the company has an unambiguous way to specify a prohibition on certain countries (a prohibition they place on countries like Sudan, but not Israel).  It could be that MSCI was responding to campaigns by JVP and others which put Caterpillar on their radar.  The trouble is, MSCI also makes it clear that “decisions are not based on representations from interest groups.”

Fortunately, this most recent statement published by MSCI finally clears up this seeming inconsistency.

In it, they indicate where issues like the Middle East conflict fall into their decision-making matrix (as a component of “Community & Society” which constitutes 10% of their overall score for a company).

Significantly, they state explicitly that their analysts “do not make judgments on the positions of the interested parties” but rather follow political controversies (Middle East related and not) to determine if they might cause a risk to the investments or reputations of index members.  In other words, because a controversy regarding Caterpillar and Israel exists, MSCI is professionally obligated to follow it (as they must follow any political controversies related to an investment), but only to determine if they pose financial or reputational risks to investors (not to make moral or political judgments on the parties or issues involved).

Given that MSCI is not a BDS organization, they most likely don’t see the Arab-Israeli conflict as the only issue impacting “Community and Society” in the universe.  So, at most, this controversy must weigh as just a fraction of the 10% MSCI assigns the “Community and Society” category as a whole.  But was this fraction of a percentage enough to tip the scales against Caterpillar this year?

Well apparently, this item has been incorporated into MSCI’s calculus since 2004, an eight year period during which it caused no changes to Caterpillar’s status.  So was 2012 the tipping point when the boycotter’s cause célèbre finally got Caterpillar bounced?  NO according to MSCI, (the horse’s mouth), who says that this political factor “did not trigger the rating downgrade in February 2012.”

So there you’ve got it.  TIAA-CREF did not divest from Israel (again, defining divestment as the BDSers do as a decision to sell assets in order to make a political statement).  And if MSCI used as a factor in its decision making “an on-going controversy associated with use of the company’s equipment in the occupied Palestinian territories,” that factor (1) could only have been weighted as fraction of 10% of their decision; (2) reflected no political or moral judgment on the part of MSCI regarding Caterpillar, Israel, the Palestinians or anyone else; (3) has been included in their decision-making for close to a decade without affecting MSCI’s inclusion of Caterpillar in their ESG indexes; and (4) did not play a role in this year’s decision to remove Caterpillar from their list of recommendations.

Walking through these details takes some time, and I’m sure the “TIAA-CREF/MSCI divested!” meme will continue to propagate and morph faster than this speed at which the truth can catch up.  (In fact, a comment left here has somehow merged the TIAA-CREF, MSCI and Presbyterian stories to create a fiction whereby TIAA-CREF had divested not just from Caterpillar, but from other BDS targets – Motorola and Hewlett Packard as well.)

Now it is the propagandist’s job to stress any information that supports their version of events (even if it consists of a single phrase in a press release) and ignore all other information that might get in the way of their storyline (such as the subsequent statements noted above which provides the context and clarification needed to genuinely understand the issue).  And I don’t in any way want to deny BDS activists the right to do their job.

But the rest of us are allowed to look at a picture bigger than JVP et al would prefer others to not think about.  And we are also allowed to take into account the boycotter’s multi-year track record of trying to pass off business decisions as politically (i.e., BDSily) motivated, only to be exposed as trying to sell false information in an effort to generate momentum for their otherwise flailing cause.

PCUSA Divestment – Results

I understand that we can’t count on anything until the final gavel sounds at the Presbyterian 2012 GA on Saturday, but assuming last night’s victory holds, there are a few important lessons to be drawn from this most-recent continuation of the BDS movement’s decade-plus-long losing streak.

First off, we need to keep in mind that this is not the first, the second nor third but actually the fourth time the Presbyterians have rejected joining the BDS “movement” and instead opting for engagement as a means to play a peace-making role in the region.

Once BDS Twitterers had finished howling derision at church members they had previously showered with praise (once their unexpected loss became apparent), they quickly reverted to “by losing we actually won” mode, citing a closing gap in the margin they have lost by over the last eight years.

But this calendar fails to take into account that BDS actually won in 2004, meaning the BDSers only hope right now is that in 2014 (i.e., ten years after they last managed to win a major battle) they might be able to get back to where they were a decade previously.

The extremely tight vote that killed off divestment last night (333-331 with two abstentions) is definitely the best lubricant for a BDS spinning-wheel trying to turn manure into gold.  But we need to keep in mind that this close vote was over the question of whether or not to do something extraordinary by PCUSA organizational standards: reject a committee report supported by a large percentage of that committee (one that embraced BDS) and replace it with a minority report that rejected divestment.

Given that committee reports tend to get rubber stamped in the General Assembly, it’s telling that the dynamic around PCUSA divestment votes tends to be built around church leaders stacking the committee that gets to bring forth BDS proposals, only to have those proposals shot down by the membership.

It’s also worth noting that once the minority report was accepted by this tight margin, the vote to embrace its call for positive investment (vs. negative divestment) passed by a much more traditional anti-BDS margin of 63%-37%, indicating that no more than a third of members fall into the “divestment or nothing” camp.

The gap between the tight first vote and more traditional second one also highlights the fact that we might be comparing apples to kumquats if we just look at the numbers associated with each year’s key vote that killed off divestment for that year.  For whenever the Presbyterians (or any church or civic organization for that matter) have been given a clear and unambiguous choice to embrace or reject a divestment proposal, rejection of BDS always wins big.

Which is why the BDS brigade within the church and their enablers amongst the Presbyterian leadership put so much effort into eliminating all possible options, other than a request for members to support or reject a report that had passed committee by a wide margin.  In 2006, for example, there was no ambiguity that members were being asked to rescind the divestment policy they had enacted in 2004 which may be why that vote was so lopsided (95%-5% to rescind).  This explains why the BDSers put so much effort into obscuring what they were actually trying to achieve this time around, and worked so hard to funnel voters in just one direction.  And still they lost.

They lost despite making PCUSA divestment their top priority, especially after behind handed an even more embarrassing defeat by the Methodists a few months ago.  They lost despite the tremendous resources they put into trying to convince both churches to climb onboard the BDS bandwagon, which included cold calling delegates and flying supporters into the meeting to lobby hard to get their motions passed.  And they lost despite the fact that the organized Jewish community decided to not put similar effort into filling the GA with their own back-slapping and arm-twisting lobbyists, preferring instead to simply alert church leaders and members that our patience with getting slapped in the face every two years was at an end.

I suppose that this is the point where I should take back some of the negative comments I’ve been making about the church over the last week or so (or keep them in reserve in case last night’s victory is somehow reversed before the end of the GA).  But I’d like to think that some of that commentary, written far more in sorrow than in anger, might still resonate with the majority of Presbyterians who still don’t seem to want their church associated with a sociopathic movement like BDS.

After all, church behavior (or, more specifically, the behavior or church leaders) was indeed appalling before, during and after last night’s vote.  They continued and continue to push ahead with BDS, with Kairos and with all of the other paraphernalia of ugly anti-Israel polemics, despite being told four times by the membership’s voting representatives that the people in the pews prefer engagement to punishment of just one side in the Middle East conflict.

This GA, like the last GA (and the one before that) was accompanied by acts of bad faith between PCUSA leaders and their supposed friends in the Jewish community to whom they kept making promises of moderation they never intended to keep.  And the behavior of those leaders continues to degrade the institution, making it that much harder for PCUSA to be taken seriously about any matter whatsoever.

Now it may be that in two years time the divestment brigade will find the right combination of words and political maneuvers to get the Presbyterian Church back on the BDS bandwagon, regardless of the views of the majority of church members.  But by then, it’s not entirely clear what we’ll be talking about when we talk about “The Presbyterian Church.”

There are hard days ahead for an institution in decline and bitterly divided about so many issues.  And I wish I could say that last night removed the BDS albatross from around the church’s neck.  But that day, sadly, still seems far, far off.

PCUSA Divestment – This Just In

I’m kind of stunned to be typing these words, but with regard to this year’s Presbyterian General Assembly (drum roll please): BDS Loses Again!

As many of you know, I’ve been fairly resigned to the likelihood that the Presbyterians would do to themselves what they did in 2004 and drag the denomination into another two years of internal and external strife, all so a few BDSers could brag to their friends that they finally got the church to vote the “right way,” after having had divestment rejected in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

But once again, sense that was nowhere to been seen in the leadership of the Church, or the partisan-packed committees they enabled, seems to still exist within the membership of the organization.  While church members can’t quite bring themselves to fully understand that, far from being a “peace movement,” BDS is the propaganda arm of a war movement that will quote scripture and subvert the vocabulary of human rights to get its way, the saner wing of the Presbyterian Church seems to know enough to avoid handing their name and reputation over to a third party that shares none of their interests.

I’m a bit blurry eyed from starting at Twitter feeds all night, but expect more commentary in the AM.

And in case you’re wondering what hashtag you want to use tonight, I believe that #BDSFail is starting to trend.

PCUSA Divestment – Seriousness

Several people have sent me the link to this piece which highlights some points I have failed to make until now, notably:

* That divestment may not have historically had the economic or political impact assumed by those who advocate for it

* That PCUSA is not actually making decisions regarding what to do with its own money but is instead putting at risk the money of others (notably pastors and lay people invested in their pension funds)

That the PCUSA’s ongoing divestment efforts could be interpreted as passing Natan Sharansky’s “3-D” test for anti-Semitism

Like other negative behaviors and outcomes associated with PCUSA’s current attempt to rejoin the BDS “movement,” none of the points above are likely to impact the thinking of those who are driving divestment within the church since their goal, simply put, is to be able to claim they speak in the name of a 400-year old, two-million member church whenever they hurl their accusations against the Jewish State (regardless of whether those accusations were ever voted on or even mentioned during debates on the subject).

Now one would think that an organization would only make a decision with this many negative consequences after the most careful of deliberations in which every effort was made to verify facts, expand dialog, scrutinize past decisions and precedence, and honestly communicate to decision makers the exact nature and likely results (both positive and negative) associated with either a “Yes” or “No” vote.

But one of the most striking things about what’s been taking place in Pittsburgh is how little effort has been expended to ensure (much less carry out) this kind of competent debate.

I’ve already mentioned how fake quotes from Nelson Mandela (quotes that were exposed as fraudulent years ago) somehow made it unchallenged into eight different forums associated with church divestment policies.  The committee report that recommends the church carry out the divestment policies that were rejected in 2006, 2008 and 2010 is filled with similar errors of fact, both about the Middle East and about what the church actually said and did during those previous divestment debates.

Accurate information could have easily been brought before the committee if church leaders driving this process had opened up discussion to include voices that might challenge (rather than just confirm) the “consensus” preferred by those same leaders. Why not, for example, call Will Spotts as a witness, given that he has written and thought about this subject than anyone else in the country?

No doubt the fact that BDS drove Will from the Presbyterian Church would be a difficult thing for committee members to have to hear.  But the whole point of this debate, allegedly, is for the church to confront one of the most challenging political issues of our day.  But just as those driving divestment seem to be doing their utmost to ensure a divestment vote does not actually require financial sacrifice on the part of those who are voting it in, they also seem to be doing everything in their power to narrow debate as much as possible in order to ensure a specific outcome, rather than an enlightened one.

The most egregious example of this behavior can be seen in the Rationale section of the Comments page associated with the recent Committee 15 report (linked above), in a statement that tries to minimize the impact a divestment vote will have with regard to PCUSA-Jewish relations.  Rather than simply state fact – that antipathy to divestment unites the Jewish world like no other issue (with organizations as diverse as J-Street and Peace Now through JCPA and the Zionist Organization of America all condemning BDS), they instead try to claim that this unprecedented consensus actually just represents “some Jewish groups” that should be balanced with the support divestment receives from others (such as the fringe group Jewish Voice for Peace).

Now a serious, grown-up argument regarding the impact a PCUSA divestment vote would have on Presbyterian-Jewish relations would not play rhetorical games with the word “some,” but would instead communicate honestly that the vast majority of mainstream Jewish organizations – representing an unprecedented across-the-spectrum consensus on the issue – have condemned BDS and are likely to break ties with the church if they decide to vote divestment in this week.  With this accurate information as backdrop, proponents of BDS would have to argue that divestment is such a high moral priority that losing the friendship of the American Jewish community is a price worth paying.

This fundamental lack of seriousness is particularly remarkable, given how seriously the church wants to be taken on this (and other) political subjects.  In fact, the only reason people would even consider listening to the pronouncement of a church like PCUSA (vs. some other political or civic organization) is that the church claims to represent exceptional moral authority, backed not just by history, but by “spirit” and “witness” (implying divine support for their political positions).

But what becomes of that moral authority if the church acts in a fundamentally immoral way to reach its decisions?  It’s one thing to support a political-spiritual leader like Martin Luther King who was willing to suffer the consequences of his actions and speak the same true and honest words to all audiences.  But PCUSA leaders who have decided to let others suffer the consequences for church actions and who speak out of different sides of their mouths (depending on who they are talking to) have no more moral authority than a political ward healer or corporate executive manipulating unwitting council members or stockholders by carefully and deliberately truncating and circumscribing debate to achieve a pre-ordained outcome.

I still hope the people in the pews will find the courage to avoid the trap that church leaders and their BDS allies have set for them.  But even if they do so by voting divestment down (again), there is a sickness in the church that will not be cured until PCUSA divests itself from BDS for good.

 

PCUSA Divestment – Struggling to Care

As the PCUSA divestment debate winds to a conclusion, I’ve been surprised how difficult it’s been to gin up the emotions (anticipation, gloom, excitement) that usually come to the surface in the run-up to a big BDS vote.

Perhaps I am simply suffering from a sense of false optimism, hoping that the divestment measures that have passed the vote of a stacked and/or largely uninformed committee will be voted down in the plenary (the same dynamic that played out during previous Presbyterian votes on the subject).  But given that, even on good days, I figured BDS stood a better than 50:50 chance of passing this week, optimism cannot explain this atypical lack of anticipation.

It’s possible I’m simply protecting myself (both emotionally and politically) in case the church does decide to rejoin the BDS movement by convincing my mind and heart to be indifferent to the results.  But given the level of enthusiasm I recently felt during a far more important BDS battle (the Methodists) and a far less important one (Park Slope Food Coop) – two votes with outcomes just as uncertain as the Presbyterians – this doesn’t feel like either an intentional or subconscious game of managing expectations.

Perhaps I have been hanging around BDSers so long that some of their lessons have rubbed off on me.

After all, the boycotters never let their repeated failures get to them – or even acknowledge to themselves or others that they have suffered a setback.  Have they ever responded to questions as to why, if their “movement” has been so successful, that investment in Israel has skyrocketed during the BDS decade?  Have they ever been willing to acknowledge the fact that their “victories” (such as the Olympia Food Coop and even PCUSA in 2004) are exceptions that prove the rule (since no other food coop or church has shown the slightest interest in buying their snake oil)?

Given that divestment champions will never acknowledge the endless victories of their opponents, or even respond when caught trying to pass off lies (such as the recent TIAA-CREF hoax), it’s not entirely clear why Israel’s supporters need to respond to every one of their baits, just because a hundred BDS Twitter feeds insist we must.

Digging a little deeper, however, there are some emotions I’d rather not confront that might be short-circuiting the usual feelings of anticipation accompanying a major BDS battle: disappointment laced with a fair amount of disgust.

We’ve already talked about what this week’s vote is really about: the right of the BDSers to speak in the name of every man, woman and child in the Presbyterian Church in declaring Israel an “Apartheid State” (i.e., a nation of racist murderers), and to blanket the world in propaganda encouraging others to follow the PCUSA’s lead in boycotting “Apartheid Israel.”

The fact that there is nothing approaching consensus on this political opinion within the church means nothing to the boycotters and their enablers, an indifference matched only by the belief that the Jewish community’s patience with being kicked in the teeth on a bi-annual basis is endless.  And if this vote might lead to more hardening of positions on both sides, leading to more suffering and greater chances for conflict, what do the divestment-volk care?  All they want is the right to be able to brag that they brought PCUSA back into their fold, regardless of the cost to anyone else inside or outside the church.

In the past, I’ve been able to pin blame on this bi-annual misbehavior on radicals inside and outside the church who have made it their life’s work to drag the organization under their umbrella.  But looking at the behavior of too many Presbyterians this time around, I can’t help but fear that the cancer represented by BDS attitudes has spread beyond a core group of fanatics.

We’ve all grown used to the manipulative arguments, the truncated versions of history, the silencing of dissenting voices that have accompanied PCUSA divestment debates in the past.  But the level of dishonesty accompanying this year’s debate seems to indicate that the church’s readiness to bear false witness is climbing close to the same level as the one practiced by the BDS “movement” as a whole.

Why else would long-ago debunked fake Nelson Mandela quotes not get called out when they were brought up before not one, not two but EIGHT church forums dealing with the divestment issue?  Why would committee members contort the language of their resolutions and discussions to claim that divestment was something other than divestment and a boycott something other than a boycott?  And why would they pretend that this entire debate was a continuation of an ongoing discussion of corporate engagement, rather than the recycling of divestment resolutions rejected three times before?

Having gotten to know many kind and thoughtful Presbyterians over the years, I suspect my current emotional state has something to do with the sympathy I feel for their pain as they watch a church they have dedicated their lives to become a place best characterized for its dishonesty, hypocrisy and impotence.

Israel and its friends certainly have nothing to fear if an organization like PCUSA decides to embrace these three characteristics by ignoring its members, ignoring its friends, and ignoring its mission to make joining the BDS “movement” its top priority (leaving just enough time to simultaneously manage a vanishing membership and internal civil war).

No doubt I’ll be watching video feeds of the final debates and votes (unless the kids want to do something outside while those debates are going on), but I shall do so with an air of melancholy as a church with a 400 year old history demonstrates its readiness to join other organizations (such as the Green Party – remember them?  I thought not.) that have clutched BDS to their breast as they sunk beneath the waves for the third time.

PCUSA Divestment – Ethos

A major assumption surrounding this year’s PCUSA divestment vote (which can also be said for all the votes the church has taken on the subject) is that a “Yes” on divestment by the Presbyterians should be taken seriously as a moral statement.  But is this a reasonable assumption?

Part of the reason we think this way is that publicity surrounding the church’s 2004 vote was cast in these terms.  But 2004 was a unique year, especially given that the PCUSA divestment story was such a major surprise (even to most Presbyterians), and BDS itself was still a relatively new phenomenon.  Given all of the activity surrounding the 2004 event, no one stopped to ask the simple question of why the Presbyterians were being taken so seriously on this matter, given how little pronouncements by the church have impacted any public discussion about any political matter for decades.

The weight one can assign to the moral pronouncements of the church (or any institution) rests entirely on the organization’s ethos, i.e., the level of respect the organization has earned by its own actions and behavior.

Now any organization that’s been around for centuries (like the Presbyterian Church) starts in a good place, ethos-wise, since people are normally deferential to an institution that’s been shaping minds and hearts for this long.  And, with the exception of those who are hostile towards religion on principle, most of us are respectful to an institution (and the people who make it up) that is dedicated to more than worldly matters.

But age-old institutions (like people with long lists of credentials) can and do frequently misbehave, which is why ethos is primarily earned through one’s current behavior.  And it is the current behavior on the part of the church that makes this week’s votes a referendum not on Israel but on the church.

We’ve already talked several times about how church members time and time again have expressed their displeasure at the political positions leaders and activists in the church were taking in their name, some going so far as to leave the church in disgust.

Now I suppose it’s possible that divestment represents a majority of church opinion.  But more than likely, it represents an opinion that can be made official church policy if positioned carefully among the small number of members who vote at General Assemblies, with primary decision making carefully channeled through committees stacked with BDS partisans.

In other words, the many, many anti-Israel votes coming up this week at the Pittsburg GA are not being brought because a majority of members support them.  Rather, BDS activists within the church (aided by church leaders) are taking advantage of the fact that a majority of members are probably indifferent to the whole subject (and ignoring the fact that many thousands of members are appalled by such votes).

If indifference to their own members doesn’t strike a blow against PCUSA’s ethos, then the harm the church is doing to people outside of their community certainly does.  As Will Spottshas pointed out, most of the divisive political issues causing fissures with church polity (many having to do with gay marriage and clergy) at least only inflict damage to the church itself.  Not so divestment which is designed specifically to harm Israel (by signaling it as so odious to be alone in the world at deserving economic sanction).  Divestment also harms the Jewish community (the vast majority of which supports Israel).  It harms Presbyterian -Jewish relations (which will likely never be the same if a divestment vote wins this week.) And it harms the chance for peace, given that it holds out hope for Israel’s foes that an option exists (i.e., BDS) that doesn’t require the compromise and negotiations needed for peace to be achieves.

If lack of concern for one’s own members and for former friends and partners aren’t enough to question the ethos of those hoping to stand in judgment of the Jewish state, there is also the reputation for honesty required to be considered an “honest broker.”

An honest broker, for example, would not promise its’ Jewish friends that church opinion would be more open minded and balanced one year, only to turn around and ram even more hostile anti-Israel resolutions down the organization’s throat a year after that.  It wouldn’t release the one honest appraisal of the impact of church policy and bask in praise for this honesty, only to take down that report weeks later and replace it with one more piece of lopsided anti-Israel agitprop (and “forget” to tell anyone this switcharoo had taken place).   And it would not limit discussion of Middle East politics to a tiny subset of militant activists, only inviting others to “join the discussion” well after all decisions had been made.

It’s one thing to stack the deck of committees, truncate debate and limit the exposure of decision makers to just one set of opinions if you’re playing the politics of Chicago City Hall.  But the Presbyterian Church is claiming to not be engaging in politics, but to be “bearing witness” to a human struggle with moral dimensions.  And if one is claiming to speak on behalf of God (the ultimate claim when one talks of “Christian Witness”), then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that church leaders – partnered with BDS activists – are engaging in the grubbiest of political maneuvering in order to shove words into the mouth of not just millions of church members, but into the mouth of God him/her-self.

A person (or organization’s) ethos is what determines if moral pronouncements should be taken seriously (and even if statements of fact should be taken at face value).  So as committees meet in Pittsburg to decide if the church will once again become a wholly owned subsidiary of the BDS “movement,” it is not Israel’s reputation that is being decided upon but the reputation of the Presbyterian Church itself.

PCUSA Divestment – Fallout

Will Spotts provides an admirable Fisking of an FAQ document provided by members of the Presbyterian Church to explain their divestment positions.

The original FAQ, full of reasonable sounding language, tries to make the case for continuity between previous divestment-related General Assembly decisions and this year’s choices (although they leave out rejection of divestment in 2006, 2008 and 2010 from their historic timeline – and seem to portray last Spring’s rejection of divestment by the Methodists as a decisions still pending).

This document also deftly avoids charges of hypocrisy by highlighting past church divestment activities that fell well within church consensus (Sudan and Apartheid South Africa), but avoiding an explanation as to why church investments in human rights disaster areas like China and Saudi Arabia remain unchallenged.

But what is most remarkable about this FAQ is that it avoids altogether the unquestionable consequences of any PCUSA 2012 divestment vote, consequences we know full well will happen because we’ve been here before in 2004.

So just in case anyone is listening, if PCUSA decides to pass this “humble, reasonable” divestment overtures they are being served by those smiling, friendly BDS advocates, here is what will happen minutes later:

* Those friendly BDS champions will immediately announce to the world that the Presbyterian Church is now fully onboard the BDS bandwagon in condemning Israel as an Apartheid state (i.e., a state made up of racist murderers)

* They will leave your hall and fan out across the globe to declare that every other church, city, school, union and other civic institution should join the Presbyterian Church in singling out Israel for economic punishment

* The Jewish community will react with outrage at being slapped in the face (yet again) despite a decade of broken promises that the endless propagandizing against Israel would cease (or at least be moderated)

* Thousands of church members, unaware of what is being voted on in their name, will be appalled and angered and wonder why divestment (which they thought was voted down time and time again) is once again the policy of a church they thought took their concerns into consideration

It would have been great had those pushing divestment within the church had the decency to let members know that this is what they will be voting on, rather than trying to wrap a radical departure from church policy in the appearance of continuity and moderation.

But, as noted before, PCUSA boycott advocates seem to be BDSers first, Presbyterians second. And if the church decides to rejoin the BDS “movement,” members of that movement will not stick around to help PCUSA deal with the fallout of such a decision.  Rather, they will have left the hall to travel the planet finding the next sucker to buy their snake oil.

PCUSA Divestment – Who Pays?

In his latest posting on the subject of this week’s US Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) General Assembly (GA), Will Spotts talks about the wall surrounding the hearts of too many people in the Church which seals them off from comprehension of the harm their activities over the years have caused, and the hatefulness their words and deeds represent. 

Previous to this, he talked about not a wall but a gap, notably the enormous chasm between the absolute evil they assign to the Jewish state (best represented by the “Apartheid” label which, in effect, accuses Israel of being a nation of racist murderers – making Israel’s supporters in the Jewish community accessories to racism and murder) and the triviality of the steps they want to take to deal with this perceived evil.

This walling off from reality and gap between word and deed makes sense once you realize that the church is desperate to find a way to look as though it is doing something important and virtuous without actually doing anything that would involve a genuine act of self sacrifice.

I tend not to use the “Well if you’re going to boycott Israel, you might as well throw your computer away” argument (if only because others have used it better than I could).  But it’s worth noting that the entire BDS effort is designed around providing options for organizations like PCUSA that require no one in the organization to deprive themselves of anything they find useful or take for granted in their day-to-day lives.

Remember that the BDSer’s goal is to get an institution like the church to take a position, any position, which would allow the boycotters to brag in their next set of press releases that “PCUSA agrees with us that Israel is an Apartheid state, which is why you should boycott Israel too!”  So providing them an easy on-ramp to such a decision, one in which the price gets paid by people other than the decision makers, is a cornerstone of BDS strategy.

And who will pay a price if a divestment vote is passed during the upcoming GA?

Not church leaders or the BDS activists (both inside and outside the church) supported by these leaders.  For they seem to be able to avoid responsibility for their behavior year in and year out (which is why they keep doing what they do GA after GA since, simply put, there is no price to pay).  And, surprisingly, not Israel which has managed to weather this kind of abuse for years while maintaining a civil society, growing an allegedly “boycotted” economy and defending itself when necessary.

No in this instance, the price will be paid by church members outside the small circle of Presbyterians who have made getting the church to boycott Israel their life’s work.

Many of these members have made it clear in votes taken in 2006, 2008 and 2010 that they don’t like the church’s lopsided Middle East policy (even if they have no particular love for the Jewish state).  For these people, the leadership is yet again making it clear that an embrace of BDS takes higher priority than the opinions of the people in the pews.

The price will also be paid by those in the church who value inter-faith dialog and relationships, especially if the Jewish community finally decides to cut ties to PCUSA, rather than continue to live with the bi-annual slaps in the face during GAs dedicated to unending Israel bashing.

The price is already being paid by Presbyterians worried that the church no longer seems to carry moral weight in the wider society.  (When, after all, was the last time you saw the media calling on a Presbyterian leader to discuss the moral dimensions of the issues of the day?)  And how could church behavior over the last decade – which has included ongoing abuse of friends, ignoring of member concerns, and the making and breaking promises to both Jews and Presbyterians looking for more even-handed church policy – do anything but wreak havoc on the church’s reputation for honesty and integrity?

In fact, the ultimate price seems about to be paid by the church as a whole which (like the Romans who decided to engage in one civil war after another just as their empire was collapsing) looks ready to continue to divide into smaller and smaller units, just so one part can join the BDS movement without being bothered by those pesky Presbyterians who have other opinions.

With church membership both plummeting and aging and a church polity ready to turn division about secular political issues (including the Middle East) into a new set of formal and permanent schisms, I can envision a day when a smaller, older and even less relevant church finally passes a divestment resolution which no one else notices and cares about.  And it may very well be that this day will arrive sometime in the next two weeks.

Reality Check – Egypt

News on both the BDS and international fronts keep delaying some of the commentary I was planning to do on the upcoming PCUSA divestment debate (which may be a good thing, given how uncharitably I’ve been feeling about the organization over the last year which will likely lead to some less-than-kindly words I may end up regretting).

But the recent election of an Islamist government in Egypt presents one of those times that it’s worth doing some political analysis normally beyond the scope of this blog, if only to put what both pro- and anti-BDS activists do into the proper perspective.

While local or online activism can be a wonderful thing (or at least an empowering experience, used for either good or ill), we all need to keep in mind that the primary driver of history is political and military power, which can also be wielded for both good and evil.

Many commentators have already talked about the delusional way we Westerners looked at the so-called “Arab Spring” which our media filtered through its own experience of youth counter-culture and middle-class “revolution.”  Yet, as anyone with eyes could see, in a situation where unlimited political power was up for grabs, guns and fanaticism would be a bigger driving force for change than Facebook accounts.

There are two competing “narratives” regarding the sources of misery in the Middle East, one that focuses all attention on Israel (or metaphysical entities such as “Zionism” and “Settlements”).  While proponents of this view are rarely so reductive as to claim that the entire region would be in a state of bliss if only the Zionist interloper was removed from the map (or had never come into being in the first place), they have no problem bringing every conversation about any Middle East subject (current or historic) back to their one topic of concern: “The Occupation”.

The Palestinian variant on this narrative (embraced by those who support BDS) sees 1948 as a Nakbah – a catastrophe – which destroyed an idyllic land called “Palestine,” whose restoration will not only bring redemption to “The Palestinian People,” but to the Arab world as a whole.  Within this context, discussion of any other political issue related to the Middle East is immaterial.

Those of us who reject this reductionist view have tried to actually include the Middle East in any discussions of the Middle East.  And as difficult as it is to come to grips with painful reality, that region has been a political basket case for generations, with all-powerful kings giving way to all-powerful military dictators who now face challenges by religious fanatics.

In each of these transitions, a sure-fire way an up-and-coming power uses to legitimize itself is to embrace hatred of Israel (tied to the “Palestinian Paradise Lost” narrative described above) to one up competitors (who are characterized as sell-outs and agents of Zionism and imperialism).  This is why Arab leaders frequently accuse their enemies of being closet Zionists (or even secret Jews). 

This is also why the Palestinian refugee issue, alone of all refugee issues in the world, has never been solved.  While, like every other refugee challenge throughout human history, it would have cost something to settle the question decades ago, it has cost hundreds of times more in terms of money and ruined lives to keep the Palestinian issue on a perpetual boil to ensure there would always be foot soldiers for a uncompromising revolution that would ultimately deliver a fantasized redemption.

As fanatics continue to gain the upper hand, we can expect the immiseration of the region to accelerate, despite the fact (or, more likely because of the fact) that unearned oil wealth greases the wheels of rejectionism and ensures that no political misjudgment or mistake can’t be covered over (or at least pushed down the road) through an adequate application of petrodollars.

And as the people of Egypt lose whatever human rights their previous tyrants allowed them, we can expect a further intensification of hostility targeting the one enemy all can agree to hate: the Jewish state (or, as more and more frequently and openly stated, just the Jews).

And before anyone starts raving that this analysis is “racist” for daring to use the word “Arab” when analyzing Arab states and Arab politics, keep in mind that we have seen this whole story play out previously in other parts of the world.  Most notably, there’s 20th century Europe where competing flavors of totalitarianism slit each other’s throats before a World War that cost millions of lives and left a continent ruined, followed by a Cold War that kept the world on nuclear high alert for decades, demonstrating that no regions or people are immune from the Totalitarian Temptation.

This doesn’t mean that “movements” like BDS should be regarded as anything less than a weapon system masquerading as a peace movement, or that we should slow in any way our challenges to their attempts to infect civil society with their toxic agenda.

But we should keep in mind what a small part in the overall story we and our opponents are playing as men with guns and zeal continue to define the world in which the rest of us have to live.

TIAA CREF BDS Hoax – Social Investing

Having gotten caught with their hand in the cookie jar for the umpteenth time, the boycotters are trying to find some way to make their recent “TIAA-CREF Divestment Victory” hoax not simply seem like yet another example of them being exposed trying to deceive the media and the public. 

But a fraud so blatant that it was exposed within hours requires extraordinary spin to recover from.  Which is why their storyline has morphed over the weekend from “Our campaign to get TIAA-CREF to divest from Israel was a smashing success!” to “Never mind about TIAA-CREF, why aren’t you congratulating us about an even bigger victory with a financial indexing firm we never mentioned before?  Oh, and by the way, isn’t it great TIAA-CREF has divested from Israel?”

The most recent BDS hoax is similar to previous instances where the boycotters have tried to portray simple (sometimes automated) business decisions as political choices made by one or more investment firms.

In this case, TIAA -CREF apparently made no decision itself regarding buying and selling shares in Caterpillar (despite having been portrayed as doing so in defiance of a US Congressman in BDS fantasy press releases).  Rather, one (and only one) of CREF’s many funds sold its Caterpillar shares as part of a routine indexing mechanism after the Morgan Stanley company MSCI dropped the company from their ESG social responsibility index that is followed by CREF.

ESG is just one of many indexes retirement and investment funds tie themselves to.  For example, S&P funds are only chartered to buy and sell stocks listed on the S&P 500.  And if a company ever finds itself de-listed from the S&P, its stock would be removed from hundreds of indexed portfolios – automatically.

The fact that the CREF story is based on an index that falls under the heading of “Socially Conscious” or “Ethical” investing has given the boycotters a hook to distract the public from their now-exposed TIAA-CREF fraud.  For rather than continuing to claim that people within TIAA-CREF were responding to the boycotters campaigns, they are now claiming those campaigns bore even bigger fruit by causing Caterpillar to be de-listed from the MSCI index.

Now Caterpillar was indeed removed from the MSCI list several months ago and, strangely, this alleged marvelous, fantastic, humungous “victory” never even made the BDS press.  In fact, it only seems to have been discovered over the weekend while the BDSers were trying to change the subject from their recently exposed TIAA-CREF fraud.

But doesn’t Caterpillar’s removal from an index labeled “Socially Responsible” mean that it is now considered an evil company, an opinion in alignment with BDS activists who have been harassing Caterpillar for years?

As several commenters here have pointed out, the world of Socially Responsible investment is not quite so clear cut.  For unlike indexes designed around specific market sectors (such as energy or manufacturing) or certain regions (such as Asian or European funds), the choice of which company represents an “ethical” investment varies based on non-economic belief systems.

Generally, investments in tobacco, alcohol, gambling and weapons manufacturing are avoided by Socially Responsible investment funds (which increasingly travel under the banner of ESG for “Environmental, Social and Governance” investing).  But as that new label implies, other factors such as environmental impact and corporate governance (usually referring to the state of state of employer-employee relations) are also taken into account when deciding who is in and who is out. 

And even within these categories, lines are not clear cut.  If you look at slide 13 of this presentation, for example, the MSCI ESG index under discussion apparently does allow investment in cigarette, liquor and arms manufacturers, but draws the line at specific revenue percentages from these controversial industries.

But the most important bullets on this slide are the second and third from the bottom which illustrate what divestment from a country actually looks like.  For here MSCI lists two specific countries (Burma and Sudan) that have been specifically targeted as countries where investment should be avoided.  In fact, the MSCI index is even harsher on these countries than they are on specific industries (for example, you can make half your revenue on liquor or firearms and still be in the index, but you can’t be invested in companies that support tyrannies in Sudan or Burma).

Needless to say, a comparable inclusion of Israel into a similar blacklist is nowhere to be found within any ESG or TIAA-CREF materials, which makes the whole notion of drawing self-serving conclusions from who is included or excluded from those funds at best an act of speculation.

As it happens, there are a host of reasons why Caterpillar might be considered marginal in this specific ESG listing.  It is involved with the military (although at less than the 50% threshold).  And the company has also had challenging labor issues recently, which included shuttering a plant after failure to settle a union dispute.  Most importantly, any fund must contain only a finite number of investments, which means companies roll on and off these funds all the time – if only because they have been replaced by other firms that suit the fund’s portfolio more effectively.

Absent any official word from MSCI regarding this decision, the BDSers have had to make do with offhand comments by unnamed people at both MSCI and TIAA CREF implying that Middle East issue played some marginal role in the MSCI decision.  But naturally, no genuine proof (such as an official statement from either company) is offered since none exists (although the boycotters have gone into overdrive to condemn other people making equally speculative statements regarding why Caterpillar was delisted as liars and frauds – mirror, mirror).

The fact that some of this speculation appeared in a Jewish news source has allowed the boycotters to play the increasingly tired “See it’s not us making these claims, it’s the Jews!  So you have to believe it!” game.  But until we have more concrete information to work from, the BDS victory boasts of “TIAA-CREF divested from Israel and the MSCI de-listing of Caterpillar is an even bigger victory for us!” bombast would better be translated into a more reasonable claim of:

TIAA-CREF did not make any political divestment decision, but simply acted on a third-party indexing mechanism within its Social investment portfolio.  And reasons why Caterpillar was removed from that specific index are currently unknown. 

Not quite the bumper sticker quote folks like Jewish Voice for Peace are looking for, but it does conform a bit more closely to what the rest of us would call “reality.”

TIAA CREF BDS Hoax – Motivation

While the world of modern finance can sometimes seem mind-bogglingly complex, the notion of divestment (as used by the BDS “movement” as their own middle name) is remarkably simple to understand.

For “divestment” (as the BDSers use the term) is specifically a political act consisting of the decision by an institution (such as a school, church or financial firm) to sell off assets for the sole purpose of making a political statement (usually in protest of the company or country associated with the assets being sold).

Such political divestment is not only distinct from other activities that also involve the selling of assets (such as selling stocks because you feel they will soon decrease in value), it is often in opposition to motivations behind these other sorts of selling activities (especially if political divestment involves selling  assets that might otherwise benefit an institution financially in order to make a political statement).

As a political decision, divestment must be a public act.  For divesting secretly (i.e., not explaining to anyone WHY you are selling off specific assets) drains political divestment of all political meaning.   And just as critically, the people who must ensure the world knows why they are divesting for political reason are the people who are actually doing the divesting.

This seems so obvious it feels strange to have to explain it.  But in nearly every case of a BDS boasted “victory,” (such as Hampshire or TIAA-CREF), you’ve got a situation where someone other than the organization allegedly doing this divesting (Students for Justice in Palestine – or SJP – in the case of Hampshire, Jewish Voice for Peace – or JVP – in the case of CREF), has claimed the right to speak in the name of and assign political motivation to a third party.

To show you how such claims must be considered bogus, consider if I was to claim that TIAA-CREF continuing to hold millions of dollars in stocks from companies on various BDS blacklists as representing the retirement giant’s faith and devotion to the Zionist enterprise and contempt for the BDS “movement.”  In such a situation, most BDSers would legitimately cry foul and explain that CREF has bought those assets for purely financial reasons.

Yet when organizations like Hampshire or CREF sell off just a small portion of these same assets (while retaining others), in swoop these same BDSers claiming that such decisions were not only political, but were the direct result of their own BDS-related activities and campaigns.

Even when the organizations allegedly doing all this divesting strenuously deny that they made any political decisions, the boycotters continue to fire off their victory press releases and create more and more convoluted explanations as to why an organization like CREF (which has made statement after statementregarding their rejection of JVP positions and requests) are actually in the BDS camp.

In the past, I’ve attributed this behavior to a post hoc fallacy in which the boycotters claim (and maybe even believe) that because their own political activity preceded the decision by an institution to sell off assets on the BDS blacklist, that their campaigns caused these sell offs.  While such an explanation seems ridiculously simple-minded and self-serving, it at least gives the BDSers some wiggle room to claim logical incompetence, rather than the desire to deceive, as the motivation behind their many fraudulent statements (especially in cases where the sell-off of assets represented pure business decisions or automatic decisions made by computers – as the result of indexing mechanisms, for example).

But in the case of the most recent BDS hoax related to TIAA-CREF, the spearhead organization behind the CREF divestment campaign (the aforementioned Jewish Voice for Peace) is not just claiming that because CREF sold some Caterpillar shares after JVP’s divestment campaign started that CREF was thus responding to their campaign.

Rather, they are assigning specific, human decision-making to the TIAA-CREF organization which they claim in their press release not only sold the shares specifically for political reasons, but did so in defiance of a named US Congressman.  And while post hoc fallacy can explain an argument that because A preceded B that A caused B, assigning make-believe motivation to human decision makers who clearly did not make the decisions being described can only be seen as a deliberate act of deception.

And so the claim by JVP and others that TIAA-CREF has divested from Israel is exposed as a lie for the simple reason that TIAA-CREF has NOT divested from Israel (presuming divestment means what it means when the BDSers themselves use the term).  Now JVP et al can always prove me wrong by holding a press conference with the decision makers at CREF to confirm their version of the truth.  But absent that, we can only conclude that the BDSers have returned to old habits of hoaxing.

Lacking the ability to get TIAA-CREF itself to confirm their claims that TIAA-CREF is now in the BDS camp, the BDSers have been reduced to spinning wild tales about an organization that, as far as I know, has never come up in any BDS discussions to date: the financial indexing firm MSCI.

As far as I can tell, the boycotters are trying to say that we should ignore the fact that TIAA-CREF has refused to divest and continues to deny that they have divested, and to instead assign a CREF divestment victory to them because of the decisions of this third party.

And who is MSCI and what did they actually decide?  More on that tomorrow.