When the Church of England’s main legislative body voted last week to divest from companies whose products are used by Israel in the “occupied territories,” Jewish groups were quick to offer condemnation. Missing, however, was the sense of alarm that greeted the June 2004 decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to start the divestment process rolling.
Jewish communal activists largely attributed the lack of panic to a string of victories during the past year in the fight to ward off divestment campaigns. Indeed, even as the Anglican Church held its vote last week, the commission charged with carrying out the Presbyterian policy took steps to table any action against Israel until 2008.
Anglican officials themselves rushed to say that last week’s vote would have little practical effect because the panel officially charged with setting the church’s investment policies already ruled against divestment in September.
If the divestment movement initially seemed like a gathering storm on Israel’s horizon, lately both its supporters and opponents say they no longer see the issue as directly impacting on-the-ground realities in the Middle East. Instead, they said, fights over divestment now serve as a way to sway public opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict in other parts of the globe.
Divestment campaigns “might not have a practical impact,” said Liat Weingart, the campaign director for Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocated boycotts against Israel. But “when the archbishop of Canterbury says we need to look at [it]… that moves the discourse forward about 10 steps, and creates a space to talk about [Israel] where there wasn’t a space before.”
Reverend Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and the leader of 77 million Anglicans, publicly backed the nearly 500 members of the Anglican Church’s General Synod, which resolved February 6 to “heed the call from our sister church, the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East… to divest from companies profiting from the illegal occupation.”
Neither the Synod nor Williams has commented on the Palestinians’ recent election of Hamas, which has yet to renounce terrorism or recognize Israel’s right to exist. The Most Reverend George Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, called his church’s vote “a most regrettable and one-sided statement” that denied “the trauma of ordinary Jewish people” in Israel, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Jon Benjamin, chief executive officer of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said that church leaders had assured him that official policies were not slated to change because of the vote. But he said the Anglican vote, taken alongside other recent events, left him wondering whether England is experiencing an unfavorable turn in public opinion.
“I know that [in the United States] there is a feeling that” in Europe “we’re all running for cover and there’s Cossacks riding down the highway,” Benjamin said in an interview with the Forward. In Great Britain “we consider ourselves in a different position,” he said. “But obviously…people are asking whether there’s a change. Rather than saying, ‘Yes, there’s a major shift and we are a beleaguered people,’ they’re asking, ‘Well, should we start feeling beleaguered yet?’”
The same day that the Church of England voted on its resolution, the Guardian newspaper launched a two-part series equating Israel with South Africa’s apartheid government, and investigating Israel’s military ties to the racist regime .
An article calling for economic boycotts of Israel caused a stir at last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The article, by Mazin Qumsiyeh, appeared in the summit’s magazine, Global Agenda.
After Jewish groups protested, Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the summit, issued a public apology and said the article’s inclusion was accidental. According to one Davos attendee, Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, organizers had contracted with an outside firm, Euromoney, to produce the magazine.
Accidental or not, some Jewish observers said that the divestment message resonated with the preconceptions many Europeans already have toward Israel.
“When the editors saw it, it didn’t shock them,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, an affiliate of the American Jewish Committee. “If there was an article questioning the right of some other minority group to exist — black people, women — it would have shocked them, but they read this and it didn’t.”
Europeans have a “guilt-complex about the history of colonialism, so to be able to portray Israel as a colonial bridgehead of America is a simplistic and satisfying demonization for certain elements” Rosen said. In the United States “the general context is not hospitable” to such assumptions.
American proponents of divestment have gained notoriety by mounting conferences on a number of college campuses — including one set for this weekend at Georgetown University — but even by their own estimation, the broader campaign has not been successful at winning public support.
This view was outlined in a statement on divestment issued last year by Jewish Voice for Peace. “On-campus ‘Divest from Israel’ campaigns have crashed and burned, generating fantastic opportunities for our opponents to collect thousands of signatures in defense of the Israeli government (e.g. Harvard) while our allies struggled to collect hundreds,” the newsletter states.
The fight for support from liberal Protestant churches in the United States has also not gone well for pro-divestment forces. Several Christian denominations — including the Episcopal Church U.S.A., the American branch of the Anglican communion — have rejected divestment.
After Presbyterian leaders voted to initiate divestment in 2004, a survey conducted by the church’s Research Services Office found that 42% of members opposed selective phased divestment — a long-term process that culminates in the selling of stock only after other measures are exhausted — while 28% supported it.
The Presbyterian divestment forces were dealt a major blow last week when the church commission charged with carrying out the 2004 vote announced that it would not make any recommendations at the church’s biennial assembly in June.
In the meantime, several regional Presbyterian groups are planning to introduce resolutions which call for the abandonment of the policy altogether. Divestment proponents also plan to introduce further resolutions, and both sides are hoping for a public relations coup.
“The big test will be the Presbyterian church in June,” said Rabbi Eugene Korn of the American Jewish Congress. “Divestment has become very, very unpopular in the United States, even with the rank and file. But once again you still have the ideologues and the extremists who are pushing the agenda.”