After Presbyterian Win, BDS Advocates Trumpet Divestment as Path to Two States by the Forward

After Presbyterian Win, BDS Advocates Trumpet Divestment as Path to Two States

Advocates for Israel may be confronting a new kind of boycott, divestment and sanctions push.

But the effort to frame the pressure tactic into a weapon for attaining a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians is being rejected by most Israel defenders as a distinction without a difference.

The June 21 vote by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to sell off its stock in three American companies seen as bolstering Israel’s occupation of the West Bank marked more than a new level of success for those advocating economic gestures to pressure Israel politically. The measure succeeded in gaining approval from the large mainline denomination in part by reframing the very nature and purpose of the divestment tactic.

For years, divestment has been wielded as a cudgel by those whom Israel’s supporters view as opponents of the very existence of a Jewish state. But the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel — or BDS, as it is known — got short shrift in the language ultimately passed at the Presbyterians’ June 21 gathering in Detroit. The church’s resolution instead explicitly reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a two-state solution to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and disavowed any “alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS movement.”

That movement, composed of pro-Palestinian activists, supports a 2005 manifesto issued by a coalition of civil society groups in the West Bank and in Gaza calling for BDS of Israel worldwide. The manifesto’s demands include recognition of “the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194” — an action that Israel and its supporters say would effectively mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

The Palestinian refugee population, which includes those expelled by Israel or those who fled during the 1948 war that established the state, plus many of their descendants, is now estimated at almost 5 million.

Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, strongly rejected the notion that the Presbyterians’ efforts to distance themselves from this movement meant anything.

“It’s just not possible at this moment and in this climate to be able to, in a sense, reinvent this as a new strategy,” argued Jacobs. The Reform leader, whose own movement officially supports a two-state solution and opposes Israel’s policy of establishing Jewish settlements on the West Bank, denounced the idea of a “kinder, gentler form of BDS” as “false.”

Jacobs heads American Judaism’s largest religious stream and spoke for pretty much the full spectrum of organized Jewry’s mainstream in voicing this view.

But the consensus could be starting to erode. Americans for Peace Now, while not welcoming divestment, expressed understanding of the Presbyterian Church’s move as “explicitly and emphatically grounded in commitment to and concern for Israel.”

“Anti-Israel forces were quick to claim PC (USA)’s decision, passed by a very narrow margin, as a victory for their odious cause, but that does not make it so,” APN averred in a statement.

Outside the mainstream tent, some Jews see the new approach at the Presbyterian convention as one that could be used elsewhere with similar success.

“They all say that BDS equals one state, but many of us believe in a two-state solution and believe that only BDS can get us there,” said Seth Morrison, a longtime activist in Jewish organizations, who recently left his position as chair of J Street’s Washington DC metro chapter because of his support for boycotting Israel.

The new era ushered in by the Presbyterian resolution challenges supporters of Israel to address a form of BDS with the stated goal of achieving a two-state solution, which even Israel’s prime minister says he seeks. Moreover, it does so in the wake of the recent collapse of conventional negotiations that sought to realize this goal.

“There’s no question that when we do have an active peace process we have a positive opportunity to tell people that there is hope and that they hold their actions,” said Geri Palast, managing director of the Israel Action Network, a joint communal operation focused on combating BDS. But she noted that the peace process has seen ebbs and flows before, and the recent failed talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry could yet be revived.

In its resolution, the Presbyterian Church (USA) did not target Israel itself directly, or any Israeli companies. The church will instead sell off its $21 million worth of stock in the American companies Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard. Activists pushing to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank have long criticized Caterpillar for supplying Israel with many of the bulldozers it uses to demolish Palestinian homes in the territory. Israel purchases the bulldozers via an American military program that helps finance the sales.

Motorola has been criticized for selling Israel military communications and surveillance equipment used in West Bank Jewish settlements, which are widely regarded as illegal under international law. Hewlett-Packard supplies Israel with equipment used at West Bank security checkpoints that regulate the movement of Palestinians in the territory.

The authors of the Presbyterian divestment resolution went to great lengths to stress that their measure should not be construed as support for a one-state solution. The language passed called for a peace “in which a secure and universally recognized State of Israel lives alongside a free, viable, and secure state for the Palestinian people.”

Following the vote, moderator Heath Rada, stressed to the plenum: “In no way is this a reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.”

Despite such language throughout the process, the delegates’ approval of the resolution was razor thin: 310 to 303 — a small enough margin to give Jewish communal activists hope for overturning the measure in the future.

Jacobs went further than other Jewish leaders in trying to head off the resolution, traveling personally to Detroit, where he delivered a passionate speech against the move. He invited church leaders to join him in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the following week at which he and they could “express our deeply shared concerns” about West Bank settlements and progress towards a two-state solution.

The delegates turned down this invitation, which was conditioned on their rejection of the divestment measure.

The Presbyterians’ attempts to distance their decision from the broader campaign to boycott Israel also did little to assuage other Jewish communal leaders.

“Divestment is divestment. You can’t have it both ways,” said Palast. “When a mainline church in the United States calls for divestment of three companies, it leads to support for [the BDS] movement.”

“We disagree about everything— but on BDS there’s deep agreement,” Jacobs said he told the Presbyterians. The opposition to it, he said, encompasses “the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community, from J Street” — a dovish group — “all the way to the right.”

An ad campaign recently produced by The Israel Project starkly reflects the mainstream community’s equation of BDS with rejection of Israel as a Jewish state. Titled “Faces of Hate: The Extremists and Bigots Behind BDS,” the ad quotes Omar Barghouti, one of the BDS movement’s founders, saying, “we oppose a Jewish state,” along with a series of other BDS backers voicing similar sentiments.

But some on the dovish margins of the Jewish community are showing increasing acceptance of the claim that BDS and a two-state solution are not mutually exclusive.

“I used to believe that BDS is an idealistic and not a realistic approach,” said Holly Bicerano, a Boston University student activist. Bicerano, who helped found a pro-Israel campus group called BU Students for Israel, recently switched over to Jewish Voices for Peace, a pro-BDS Jewish organization. “When the peace talks collapsed I reached the conclusion that BDS is the practical way forward,” she said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at or on Twitter @nathanguttman


Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was 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.

After Presbyterian Win, BDS Advocates Trumpet Divestment as Path to Two States

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