Yurp and the “Big Mo”

I’m occasionally asked about divestment activities that take place in Europe, such as the Norwegian government’s recent decision to divest a state pension fund from a specific Israeli company. I must admit that the focus of my work has been primary North America (with an occasional foray into Great Britain), although I have noted in a piece on another subject that people often dress up decisions European firms make to take advantage of the large Arab market vs. the smaller Israeli one as some form of moral political choice. And politically, Muslim (and increasingly Islamist) politics is playing as big or bigger a role on the continent than Jewish politics plays in the US, especially now that Europeans have chosen to stop reproducing, creating demographic trends that should concern us all.

But that’s not the point of today’s posting. For every time some institution announces something that can be construed as a divestment success, we are once again told that divestment has the “Big Mo,” that the BDS crowd has the wind at its back, and we must all hail this latest victory (even if it’s a hoax, like Hampshire) as the wave of the future.

But there is a corollary to such an approach that almost never gets asked. In the last month alone, two of the remaining Protestant denominations (the UCC in Canada and the Lutherans in the US) have joined their colleagues in the Presbyterian and Methodist churches to give divestment the heave ho. If a Norwegian pension fund choosing to divest a few kroner from one Israeli firm is to be considered a victory for the other side, shouldn’t the rejection of divestment by virtually the entire Mainline Protestant community be considered a massive triumph for our’s?

It’s sometimes too easy to let the BDS-ers set the terms of victory since, after all, they are seeking victory, whereas the ultimate goal for most of us is not winning but reconciliation and peace. But given that the divest-niks have chosen the battlefield, I think it’s only fair that the rules they have created apply to both sides. And given the unending string of defeats divestment has faced in schools, unions, municipalities and now churches (to a point where they have to rely on obscure artists choosing to not attend little-known arts festivals alongside Israelis as their latest “win”), doesn’t that say something about these institutions’ positive attitudes towards Israel (or at least their negative attitudes towards seeing it punished economically, just because the BDS crowd says it must).

If that’s the case, then every college, union, city, town and church in the country has voted YES on Israel, even if the other side has a Norwegian pension fund on its side (for now). Call me crazy, but I’ll take that as a win any day.

More good news!

In another important move within the Mainline Protestant community, the Lutheran Church (more specifically, the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or ELCA) voted to reject a series of resolutions that singled out Israel for criticism and instead voted in favor of a “balanced and fair-minded” resolution that took into account the needs of both Arabs and Jews (see here for details). Just as importantly, this vote also called for the church to communicate “clear and reliable information” about the conflict, in contrast to the one-sided and inaccurate information frequently sent by church leaders to their members.

While not specifically about divestment, this vote (right after the recent rejection of divestment by the United Church of Canada) is critical for the following reasons:

(1) This represents a three-year string of votes at various Mainline churches (Presbyterian, Methodist, UCC, Lutheran) whereby church members taking part in democratic votes rejected one-sided calls to condemn Israel that were being pushed either by radical branches or by the church leadership itself.

If these votes were closer to 60:40, that would simply indicate that church members (as opposed to many church leaders) are part of a US consensus where support for Israel tends to hover in the 60-70% range. But the fact that these votes were so overwhelming (85% in the case of ELCA, 100% in the case of the Methodists), seems to indicate that church members are tiring of designated or self-appointed leaders claiming to speak in the name of their faith when hurling condemnation of the Jewish state. While general support for Israel among rank and file Christians is welcome, it’s even more important that church members are beginning to speak out and insist that the name and reputation of their church no longer be manipulated, even by the official church leadership.

(2) The ELCA’s choice to demand “clear and reliable information” be provided when discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict indicates a recognition that information frequently disseminated by supporters of divestment (or other anti-Israel measures) is often false and unbalanced (which it is), but still distributed to church members (including children) with no concern over its accuracy. This is the first time a Mainline Protestant church has voted to condemn this practice by calling for any debate on the Middle East to be based on high quality vs. biased information and sources.

These are both huge steps in the right direction emanating from the very places divestment activists once pointed to as being an example other institutions should follow: The Mainline Churches. Now that the Mainliners seem to be not just exiting the divestment game, but voting overwhelming for honest debate, it’s time we took up the banner of calling for other civic institutions to follow their lead.

UPDATE: An astute reader pointed out that the call for the church to provide “clear and reliable information” was a resolution submitted to the Memorials Committee (“Memorials” being the term the Luterans use for resolutions), but not voted on by the ELCA as a whole. Given that the last 5-10 years has seen little beyond anti-Israel “memorials” within the church, this is certainly a step in the right direction. Let’s hope a desire for fairness and accuracy continues to percolate up and down the institution.

So where has divestment been successful?

FAQ#9: If divestment has failed at colleges and universities, has it been successful anywhere else?

In 2004, a number of Mainline Protestant churches (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists) passed resolutions calling for divestment of their retirement portfolios from stocks identified by BDS activists as supporting the Jewish state. In fact, the success divestment had in penetrating major churches was the anchor for the BDS movement between 2004 and 2006.

As with universities, however, support for divestment in the churches turned out to be extremely shallow. While some church leaders supported divestment (as did a few regional churches, like the New England Methodists), the rank and file categorically rejected divestment calls, voting down divestment by margins of 95%-5% (the Presbyterians) or unanimously (the Methodists) in 2006 and reaffirming those decisions in 2008.

During this period, divestment was also attempted in some US cities (notably Somerville, Massachusetts and Seattle, Washington), but lost badly in both places. The same bait-and-switch tactics that played themselves out on campus were also tried at other institutions, but ultimately good sense prevailed and divestment was rejected.

Belly of the Bust

Well I attended last week’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) support group last Thursday. While the notion of sitting in a room full of people on “the other side” disagrees with me more than it does activists with more of a taste for conflict, I must admit to looking forward to being with a group of people who share with me an involvement with the divestment “subculture” (albeit from a very different perspective).

Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the first 45 minutes of the event due to a scheduling conflict (a date with my wife, as a matter of fact), and thus had to leave when one of the leaders of the pro-divestment event was just getting warmed up. Still, even this half-attended meeting provided some important perspective.

To begin with, the room was “packed” with sixteen people, and other than a moderately youthful bobble-head sitting next to me whose noggin started gyrating whenever Israel’s “crimes” were mentioned, I seemed to be the youngest person in attendance. The event also included well-thumbed signs falling off the walls and a shortage of handouts (which indicates that the organizers expected even fewer people to show).

The talk I had to leave during showed off the one strength of the “divest-nista” crowd: an ability to stay on message. And that message was, plain and simple: Israel = South Africa. Thus, most of her talk was about how Israel was similar and different to Apartheid South Africa, with a heavy emphasis on the former and mere lip service to the latter. “Evidence” of this connection was pretty standard fare (including the ubiquitous recitation of Israeli trade ties with SA during the Apartheid years, with nary a mention of the clandestine Arab oil-for-gold trade that kept Apartheid afloat for decades).

The organizers kept coming back to South Africa again and again, highlighting the importance of anti-Apartheid leaders like Desmond Tutu and John Dugard in their divestment “movement” with an argument that basically boils down to the suffering of South African blacks during the Apartheid movement rendering their comments on Israel (or any other matter) unassailable. That made me wonder when Israel’s critics would automatically award Jewish victims of similar or greater levels of suffering (like, oh say, the Holocaust) the same level of unquestioned moral authority, until I remembered that – according to them – the Holocaust did little more than turn Israelis (and their Jewish supporters) into pathological, unsympathetic monsters.

Although there were not enough handouts for everyone (including me), I did manage to read through their most important information flyer, a four-page, single-spaced listing of divestment “victories” over the last 5-6 years. Had my schedule allowed me to stay until the end of the event, I would have brought up the obvious question as to why their list of divestment “supporters” consisted almost entirely of organizations that had showed divestment the door years ago. Yes – as their flier states – the New England Methodists have revisited divestment again and again. But wasn’t it worth a brief mention that the Methodist Church as a whole voted down divestment UNANIMOUSLY less than a year ago? And why do they continue to describe the UCU (the British Teacher’s Union) and NUJ (the British National Union of Journalists) as advocates for divestment when members overturned divestment votes almost immediately after hyper-partisan leaders rammed them through packed committees? The Hampshire hoax was even highlighted, making me wonder about the location of the dividing line between the need to inflate small victories (a standard and respectable tool in political organization) and the organizers need to dwell in a fantasy world where their failing BDS “movement” was racking up one imaginary victory after another.

But the real question the event made me think about was what people who had dedicated most of their adult lives to the propaganda war against the Jewish state felt about the results of their contribution to the conflict. After all, I’ve seen the people at the podium (and many members of the audience) at every anti-Israel event I’ve attended in the last twenty years (and they were already old-timers in the “movement” then!). And what do the Palestinians in whose name they claim to speak have to show for themselves since the boycotters started? After decades of, in effect, telling the Palestinians that “help was on the way,” that if they just waited a bit longer, just rejected the next peace offer, that Israel would soon be rendered helpless as an international pariah, the BDS-niks can now survey a Middle East landscape where half the Palestinians are under the rule of a corrupt Fatah dictatorship (that the divestment crowd once demanded were the “sole, legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people”)and a Hamas death-cult that only takes breaks from repressing women and murdering homosexuals in order to fire rockets at Jews Israeli nursery schools from Palestinian ones.

The Queen in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland prided herself on believing “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Yet this feat pales in comparison before the attitudes of the people in the room last Thursday. For how can they respond to the FACT that their efforts have contributed more to the suffering of Palestinians than I or any of my fellow activists ever could? Beyond a scoffing laugh at the mere mention that their program represents anything other than Gandhi-esque virtue, what answer could they possibly provide?

And so, once again, I was confronted with a tiny “hoard” of people whose only defenses and motivations was self-righteousness, fantasy and fury. If the Alpha and Omega of your existence is your own unquestionable virtue, what other response can there be to the observation that divestment – like so many preceding anti-Israel propaganda efforts – has only helped to dramatically increase the amount of misery in the world, mostly among the very Palestinians who they claim as their lives’ moral loadstone.

In a word: foreshame.

Thus Sayeth the Lord!

Divestment debates are ongoing matters at many “Mainline” Protestant churches. I’ve talked before about how anti-Israel divestment resolutions, begun by local churches, find their way to national forums (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists who meet every few years within quasi-democratic frameworks to vote on resolutions submitted from “the field”). While these resolutions get routinely voted down at a national level by whopping majorities, that seems to just give local activists the go-ahead to try to re-craft their rejected calls for resubmission two or four years hence.

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko’s booklet Looking at Them Looking at Us: A Jewish Understanding of Christian Responses to Israel (published by the Jewish Center for Public Affairs, and sadly not online) is required reading to fully understand why these votes keep coming up again and again among Protestant denominations such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and UCC. In his essay, Poupko highlights two critical points:

· Mainline churches are in steep decline, due to falling birthrate/aging of members, and a lack of perceived spiritual vitality, especially among youth who (if interested in religious affiliation at all) are increasingly attracted to growing evangelical churches, whom “mainliners” perceive as competitors

· Mainline churches are the most prominent American institution committed to dissent on US foreign policy matters. Quoting Poupko: “while a variety of advocacy efforts are centered in labor unions, universities, and interest groups, it is primarily in the mainline Protestant churches that persistent voices against American foreign policy are heard. It is from the churches that the resources flow which facilitate dissent.”

These two issues are linked, with politics filling a void left by a spiritual vacuum among churches dealing with modernity and struggling to find their own unique identity in an increasingly secular and ecumenical world. And having staked out foreign policy as their “turf,” choices often get made based on competitive positioning with rival churches (notably more conservative fundamentalists). While it would be an oversimplification to say that Presbyterian or Methodist choices on matters such as Israel and the Middle East boil down to “if the fundamentalists support Israel, we oppose it,” it’s also fair to say that mainliner’s choices are impelled as much by secular and church politics as they are by “Christian witness.”

As already noted, divest-from-Israel resolutions managed to pass national church votes at the height of divestment’s success in 2004, but have since been defeated time and time again. But at a local level, groups like the New England Conference of United Methodist Church have continued to draw up long lists of companies they want to see the church divest from as part of a high-profile, national action. Remember that the primary goal of divestment is to get a prominent institution like a national church to put its weight and reputation behind their cause. And getting this to happen often requires the same type of rough-and-tumble politics we’ve seen at other institutions such as limiting debate to only one side of the issue, or forcing controversial resolutions that allegedly speak for the whole church by votes of a small subset of members (often members of highly partisan political action committees).

While politics is politics, churches face particular problems when these tactics are exposed (as they have been a national conferences) since church members claim to be taking political stances not simply as institutions but as prophetic voices. Time and again, church members describe their anti-Israel stances and resolutions as cases of “bearing witness,” implying that their statements are made not simply on behalf of themselves or their own church, but in the name of God himself.

My friend Will Spotts pointed out both the human and spiritual problems behind such behavior in his groundbreaking work Pride and Prejudice: The Presbyterian Divestment Story:

“’Thus sayeth the Lord.’ This description of our own opinions can easily result in an unwillingness to actually entertain evidence that contradicts what we have declared to be true – namely that Israel is to blame for violence in the region, that Israel is to blame for the Palestinian refugee crisis, and that Israel is morally deficient for attempting to use a physical barrier to protect its citizens. Since this prophecy has been issued in our name, we, as Presbyterians might do well to remember the stern biblical condemnation of the practice of claiming to speak for God where God has not spoken.”

Churches engaging in politics thus face greater dilemmas that other institutions dealing with the divestment issue (such as schools, cities and unions). For if their engagement with the Middle East wells up from a prophetic tradition, why are so many of church debates characterized by the grubbiest political behavior? Today, even at churches where divestment is not on the agenda, condemnation of Israel serves as constant backdrop with steady streams of speakers, films, art shows and other materials (some directed at children) that straddle the line between education and propaganda. Yet how many times have these churches sought out alternative voices to help them wrestle with some of the most vexing political issues of the day vs. taking their own hidebound political stances literally as gospel?

As I noted during the Presbyterian divestment debates in 2006, one would think that religious institutions would strive to be an example to the rest of us regarding civil and informed debate, especially on the toughest and touchiest of issues. And yet time and time again, these very churches exemplify some of the least attractive sides of our political culture: self-righteousness, insensitivity to others, disinterest in dissenting opinion (including efforts to shield other church members from alternative viewpoints), all wrapped up with the troubling notion of “bearing witness,” implying as it does that their very secular political choices are, in fact, the work of the divine.

A thesis I’ve been discussing since getting onto the anti-divestment bandwagon has been how divestment, designed to inflict moral damage on the Jewish state, tends to boomerang on those who advocate it. “Who will trust our words in the future? Why should they?” was the quote of one Presbyterian after a particularly egregious incident involving the church’s 2008 debate over divestment. Indeed, Israel reputation will survive the slings and arrows tossed at it as partisans try to revive the divestment strategy over the coming years. The question is, will the churches’?

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.