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A Failure of Moral Vision

The movement toward divestment from Israel by mainline Protestant churches — first the Presbyterians and now, perhaps, the Anglicans — is an alarming measure of how badly Israel’s reputation in the West has been damaged in the last four years.

The uneven warfare of the intifada, the spreading global specter of Muslim rage and the canny marketing of Palestinian victimhood have all combined to create an image of Israel as a rogue nation founded on injustice and the dispossession of innocents.

The gross unfairness of the image; the desperate circumstances of Israel’s struggle; the continuing efforts of its citizens, its courts and even its army to accommodate Palestinian needs despite the brutality of the confrontation — none of this appears to matter in the comic-book morality tale that has replaced reasoned discourse in too many circles.

The decision last spring by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from companies doing more than $1 million in annual business — however “selectively” it is to be implemented — takes this comic-book morality to a new height. It turns the coarse, abusive rhetoric of Palestinian activists and their allies into a crusade by middle-class Americans and their churches. The church’s divestment resolution pays lip service to condemning the inhuman Palestinian practice of suicide bombings targeting Israel’s civilian population with mass murder, but it suggests no action against Palestinian leaders or movements that perpetrate or support the murder. Only Israel is seen as culpable. As such, it represents an utter failing of moral vision on the part of a faith community that should hold moral vision aloft as its first duty.

Presbyterian leaders insist the divestment decision should not be seen as a blanket condemnation of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. They say it is intended merely as an effective diplomatic tool and is not meant to imply a parallel between the Jewish state and the repugnant apartheid regime in South Africa. But South Africa is the only other country that has faced sanctions of this sort. In a world filled with regimes guilty of tyranny and mass murder on nearly every continent, it is against Israel that the church sees fit to take a stand and speak with the power of its purse. How else can that be read but as a singling out of the Jewish state?

Given the circumstances, the divestment movement must also be seen as a reflection of the weakened standing of the American Jewish community in its relations with other faith communities. A half-century of interfaith dialogue and shared struggles for social justice appear to have accounted for nothing as the Presbyterian leadership has moved toward its obtuse policy. Church leaders are fully aware of the profound importance of Israel to American Jews as a religious value and a token of pride and identity, yet they did not even bother to consult their longtime Jewish dialogue partners about the matter until forced into this week’s grudging consultation in New York. The unsatisfactory outcome of that meeting only heightens the insult.

It is easy to suggest, as this newspaper has often done, that Israel should take this sort of diplomatic and economic fallout into account when it formulates its diplomatic and military policies toward its neighbors. But the burden has now shifted, because Israel is currently reshaping its policies with precisely those considerations in mind. It has begun demarcating a border between itself and the Palestinians. Where the barrier impinges on Palestinian civilian life, Israel’s own courts have ordered it moved. It is now preparing for a dramatic first step, however imperfect, toward removing its army and settlers from the territories. For all these steps, Israel has been greeted in the liberal West with nothing but further abuse.

Above all, the move toward divestment represents a failure of moral vision on the part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) leadership and those other groups that are considering the same step. Churches, more than any other institution in society, have a mission to speak with a clear voice of conscience. The divestment movement betrays that mission.

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