Washington — The decision to launch a divestment campaign against Sudan has once again put the Jewish community at the forefront of the struggle against mass killing in Darfur.
Delegates to the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — 10 national organizations, the synagogue movements and 122 local communities nationwide — passed a resolution this week calling on Jewish communities to end all investments in companies that are “directly or indirectly helping the Sudanese government perpetuate genocide.”
Despite nearly wall-to-wall support among Jewish organizations for intense international pressure on the Sudanese government to crack down on militias accused of carrying out massacres, the idea of initiating a divestment campaign turned out to be a thorny issue, with some organizations fearing that such a step could end up complicating the fight against those calling for boycotts of Israel.
“Divestment is a very bad thing that will come back and bite us on the backside,” argued Elihu Davison, a member of the JCPA executive committee, during Monday’s open debate on the resolution held at the Omni Shorham Hotel in Washington. This concern was echoed by many other delegates, who have been fighting divestment campaigns in their local communities aimed at Israel.
A delegate from Cleveland said, “Divestment should be one of the seven dirty words,” suggesting that the term be replaced by a word not as easily associated with anti-Israel efforts.
But supporters of the resolution, which was sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism, the American Jewish Committee, Jewish War Veterans and 13 local Jewish Community Relations Councils, or JCRCs, were not willing to make changes.
“I don’t like the Presbyterians making us not use that word,” Shelly Shapiro of New York said. Shapiro was referring to the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest organization to have approved some sort of resolution calling for divestment from Israel. On domestic issues, the JCPA lived up to its liberal reputation. The resolutions approved this week included opposition to tax cuts that affect funding of social programs at the federal and state levels, a call for more regulations on handguns, reaffirmation of the Jewish community’s commitment to human rights, endorsement of immigration reform and a call to end America’s dependence on foreign energy sources.
The resolution dealing with energy, which has become a leading cause on the agenda of many key Jewish groups, framed the issue primarily as a national security concern, stressing the need to free America from its dependence on oil coming from regimes that support terrorism. The majority of Plenum delegates rejected amendments, proposed by local federations, that would have put an equal emphasis on the need to conserve energy.
Several speakers in favor of the resolution said that Israeli officials have made clear that a divestment campaign against Sudan would not harm attempts to shield Israel from similar efforts. Supporters of the resolution also argued that divestment could be a useful tool in pressuring the government in Khartoum to allow international forces to secure the Darfur region.
The American Jewish Congress wanted an amendment to the resolution that would mention the need for military intervention in case divestment and economic sanctions do not work. The amendment, which was brought up at the last minute, was eventually pulled back by the AJCongress. After the vote, the group’s director of international affairs, David Twersky, said that the resolution would have been more effective had it focused on more than just economic sanctions. “Our people are so allergic to any kind of military intervention,” Twersky said.
The language adopted on Sudan calls for “targeted divestment,” which would focus on companies dealing with the Khartoum government, making sure civilians are not harmed from these economic measures. Sudan’s main source of foreign currency is its oil revenues. Its biggest client is China.
Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, which has already launched its own divestment campaign against Sudan, commended the JCPA for the resolution and for recognizing that “we must use whatever means we have available to make ‘Never Again’ a reality.”
In sharp contrast to the debate surrounding the divestment resolution, an argument was averted over a resolution regarding the fate of Israeli settlers evacuated from Gaza, thanks to a last-minute compromise.
The resolution, sponsored by the Orthodox Union and by B’nai B’rith International, called on the Jewish community to help Israelis affected by last summer’s Lebanon war and former settlers evacuated in 2005 during the Gaza disengagement. “This is simply a matter of humanitarian concern,” said David Luchins of the O.U. when presenting the resolution. Hadassah and the Anti-Defamation League opposed the linkage made between the plight of those affected by Hezbollah’s attacks against Israel and those who were displaced following the Israeli government’s decision to withdraw from Gaza.
A last-minute deal brokered by the Reform movement divided the issues into separate resolutions, both of which were approved by an overwhelming majority.
Last week, B’nai B’rith became the first and only member organization to adopt a platform opposing any further unilateral withdrawals by Israel.
The resolution, adopted by B’nai B’rith’s executive committee at its meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., expresses opposition to any territorial compromise by Israel if it is not part of a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians.
“B’nai B’rith International remains committed to a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians,” the resolution reads.
“However, given the experience of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and deeply concerned over the Hamas-rejectionist-led Palestinian Authority, we are now opposed to further such withdrawals or any territorial modifications absent good faith bilateral negotiations between the parties.”
Dan Mariaschin, B’nai B’rith’s executive vice president, said that “this is not an ideological vote, but rather a practical look at the situation on the ground.” He also pointed out that the organization was among the first groups to endorse then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s proposal for a unilateral pullout from Gaza.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.