Jewish Groups Scramble To Head Off Divestment Push

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published October 01, 2004, issue of October 01, 2004.
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As the push to cut off investments in Israel gains momentum in Protestant circles, Jewish organizations and their allies on Capitol Hill are racing to neutralize the burgeoning divestment movement.

This week, following a tense three-hour summit with upset Jewish communal officials, leaders of the Louisville-based Presbyterian Church (USA), with 2.5 million members, said they were determined to go ahead with their recently approved plan to divest selectively from Israel. The interfaith meeting came just days after Anglican Church officials visiting Israel said that they would push for consideration of a divestment plan to protest Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

“The Presbyterian divestment could potentially create a snowball effect and resurrect what had been a moribund issue,” said the interfaith affairs director of the Anti-Defamation League, Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor. “Now it has provoked the Anglicans, and we know it will not end there. We have to send a clear message to every church that they will have to face a united Jewish community on this issue.”

In an effort to head off anti-Israel divestment efforts, a bipartisan group of 13 congressmen sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce stating that such campaigns violate America’s laws regarding the Arab boycott of Israel. The letter, which was initiated by the Zionist Organization of America, was sent to the Commerce’s Office of Anti-boycott Compliance. The congressmembers urged the office to “investigate the national boycott campaign against Israel, shut down the illegal divestment campaigns and impose the appropriate penalties.”

A second bipartisan group of congressmen sent a letter to the Presbyterian Church’s chief executive, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, calling for the church to abandon its recently adopted divestment plan. The letter, organized by Howard Berman, a California Democrat, termed the church’s divestment policy “irresponsible, counterproductive and morally bankrupt.”

The letter stated that the resolution “leads us to only one conclusion: The Presbyterian Church has knowingly gone on record calling for jeopardizing the existence of the State of Israel.”

Some critics raised concerns that the effort by congressmen to insert themselves in the affairs of a religious group is an assault on the separation of church and state.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, sounded a similarly harsh note during his opening speech at the Tuesday meeting with Presbyterian leaders. The gathering was held at the Reform movement’s headquarters in Manhattan.

Referring to several anti-Israel resolutions, or Overtures, approved by the church during the summer –– including one assailing the erection of Israel’s secuiryt fence –– Yoffie declared: “Do the authors of these Overtures value Jewish lives and Palestinian lives equally? Do they mourn the death of Israeli children in the same way and with the same intensity that they mourn the death of Palestinian children?”

“In your Overture, Israel’s occupation is evil, as are, by implication, those who carry it out,” Yoffie said in his opening statement. “And yet the word ‘evil’ appears nowhere else in the Overture. No Palestinian action, no matter how horrific, is categorized as evil. If the blowing up of Israeli children on a Tel Aviv bus is not an evil act and a terrorist act, then what is it?”

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements took part in the meeting, along with several Jewish public-affairs agencies including the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Jewish Committee.

After the meeting, Kirkpatrick, the church’s chief executive, declined to call for the reversal of the anti-Israel divestment resolution, despite entreaties during his first face-to-face meeting on the subject with Jewish communal leaders.

“I do not leave this meeting feeling that the decision by the General Assembly should be reversed,” Kirkpatrick said at a press conference.

He did, however, pledge to keep Jewish leaders more informed on the divestment process.

Leaders from both sides also said they would look into organizing joint trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as increasing interfaith dialogue on the local level and among seminary students.

In November, the church’s special committee on socially responsible investing is expected to begin deciding which American companies that do business in Israel are harmful to Palestinians and, hence, subject to divestment. The committee is scheduled to make recommendations in March to the church’s board of directors. The church has about $7 billion in investments, but only a small percentage is related to Israel.

A decision by the General Assembly on which companies to divest from would not be made until the next national conference, in 2006, Kirkpatrick said. He also stressed that divestment would be used as a last resort, only after the companies in question were urged to attempt to change Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. He named Caterpillar Inc. as one company that would be targeted, because its bulldozers have been used to demolish Palestinian homes.

Tuesday’s interfaith summit also comes as the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Washington think tank, issued a report accusing mainline Protestant churches of disproportionately attacking Israel, while letting repressive regimes known for human rights abuses, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, off the hook.

The report stated: “It is not unreasonable to ask whether anti-Jewish animus may play some role in the church’s skewed human rights advocacy.”

The National Council of Churches USA, a coalition representing mainline Protestant groups, responded by criticizing the report as significantly flawed, and by arguing that the conservative think tank was attempting to drive a wedge between the Jewish community and liberal churches.

“The most unfortunate part of the IRD’s report is its apparent attempt to hurt Jewish-Christian relations by quite blatantly planting seeds of suspicion that the mainline churches are antisemitic,” said the national council’s general secretary, the Rev. Dr. Robert Edgar. “The IRD wrongly and dangerously equates any criticism of the government of Israel and its policies with antisemitism.”

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