Intense long-term lobbying efforts produced two major victories for Jewish organizations in recent weeks, with Israel securing admission to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the Presbyterian Church voting to replace its 2004 divestment decision.
In both cases, Jewish organizations played key public and behind-the-scenes roles in pressing for change.
The Red Cross decision was particularly gratifying, following almost six decades of aggressive, sustained lobbying. Previous attempts to gain entry had been blocked by Arab and Islamic countries, which latched onto the agency’s Star of David logo as a pretext to reject the Israeli agency.
But that point of contention was cleared up this past December, when a neutral symbol — a red crystal — was allowed. That satisfied the final condition Israel needed to submit its membership application to the Red Cross.
Still, the ultimate push was not without drama last week, as Arab and Islamic countries did all they could to block the move ahead of the vote early June 22 at a meeting of the Red Cross in Geneva. The conference, which drew 192 Red Cross states and 183 national emergency relief societies, was convened to determine whether Israel’s emergency services agency, Magen David Adom, should be allowed to join the international humanitarian organization. In the end, after some last-minute, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the final vote was decisive: 237 in favor of Magen David Adom and 54 against, with 44 abstentions.
Reaching this point took decades of work by major Jewish organizations, and the battle also played out in Washington, where a number of legislators made it a priority issue.
The American Red Cross also played a leading role in the campaign, after lobbying from lawmakers and Jewish organizations. Since 2000, the organization has withheld $42 million in dues, 25% of the international federation’s annual income.
Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive vice president of American Friends of Magen David Adom, called it a “vote for humanity over sectarian politics.” The chairwoman of the American Red Cross, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, agreed, citing it as a “remarkable and long-overdue response to the inclusion of all the principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.”
Just a day before the Red Cross decision, delegates to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) overwhelmingly voted to replace the 2004 call for divestment with a policy of peaceful investment in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. The resolution passed the church’s General Assembly by a vote of 483-28, with one abstention.
The Jewish community was facing the prestige of an influential American church whose allegiance to Palestinian Christians stems from 150 years of missionary work in the region. That alliance led church leaders to pass a resolution two summers ago, at its last General Assembly, calling for “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.”
The Presbyterian move inspired several other Protestant churches to examine the divestment option, though none went as far as the Presbyterians.
American Jewish groups rolled out a major offensive to educate Jewish students and advocate for Israel as the campus divestment drive gained steam, and crafted a unified response to church divestment efforts.
It was “an almost unprecedented mobilization,” along the lines of the undertaking to free Soviet Jewry decades ago, said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a consultative public-policy body bringing together 13 national Jewish organizations and more than 100 local Jewish communities.
The JCPA joined the major Jewish civil-rights groups and religious streams to work in a broad coalition. Some five-dozen conference calls later — and after focus groups and dialogue between Jews and Presbyterians in synagogues, in churches and community centers across the country — the Presbyterians shifted course.
The new resolution replaces the divestment call with a policy of “corporate engagement” that restricts the church to peaceful investments in the region. It also backtracks from the previous call to dismantle Israel’s West Bank security barrier, saying instead that it should follow the route of Israel’s pre-1967 boundary.
Jewish groups rejoiced at the passage of the reformed resolution. Yet some said it would be wrong to view the result solely as a Jewish victory.
Just as much, it restored “the soul of the Presbyterian church,” said anti-divestment activist William Harter, a pastor from Pennsylvania who is secretary-treasurer of the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel.
The issue has rocked the Presbyterian Church. Many church members felt not only misled about the 2004 resolution — which they mistakenly thought had been vetted with the Jewish community — but misrepresented by a leadership that they felt didn’t call enough attention to the issue before that vote, when it was tacked on to another resolution.
Making matters worse, other actions by church leadership — such as meetings with Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah — further alienated rank-and-file members.
Jewish activists worked closely with Presbyterians opposing divestment and, at the same time, charted their own course.
The Coalition for Responsible Peace in the Middle East, which comprises the American Jewish Congress, Stand With Us and The David Project, promoted more aggressive grass-roots activism, providing such benefits as anti-divestment literature at church gatherings.
But for a wide swath of Jewish groups, their primary role was facilitative. “This was a conversation the church had to have with itself, and by having people talk on the local level,” Felson said, “we played a role with helping that conversation along.”