Yesterday a committee within the Presbyterian Church (USA) recommended that the denomination officially divest (retract all financial investments) in three companies that profit from the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Today a similar overture was proposed, debated, and failed in the Chicago Presbytery.
This sort of denominational movement has caused much strife between Presbyterian and Jewish friends, colleagues, and dialogue partners. Even Rabbinical leaders who agree with Presbyterian convictions of the Israel-Palestinian conflict have been deeply offended by the priority given to divestment vs. other, tangible avenues of ensuring change.
From what I can tell (after reading most everything the PC(USA) has put out on this issue) divesting in these companies is an attempt to demonstrate the denomination does not want to profit from violence. It is meant to be a productive, non-violent way of interacting with the situation – and I used totally agree with this reasoning.
After researching more, I started to question the effectiveness of things like “denominational statements” and “overtures”. Do people outside a small circle even care about these things? Are they productive? What is the cost vs. benefit of them? Would divestment in key companies profiting in violence actually impact corporate practices?
Then I had a conversation that further affirmed my skepticism. A few months ago a trusted Jewish friend and leader, who like me opposes Israel’s occupation in the West Bank, asked me why my denomination was wasting time divesting when it could be addressing this conflict through more productive means. After listening to him and some of his ideas, I started to ask myself similar questions. I shared this story at the Chicago Presbytery today.
From what I can discern, divestment is just an easy way to feel morally superior about a conflict that few Presbyterians have any real impact on. (Also, the divestment conversation has been going on for around six years, and has yet to produce any measurable impact on the situation in question.)
I do not see how overtures for divestment are productive. The denomination divested from companies supporting the apartheid in South Africa, and that was effective because in some cases it changed corporate practices. Divestment in this situation is different because it will not ultimately impact the companies – the ones in question have not even cared enough to talk to the denomination. Also, it will continue to drive a wedge among Presbyterian and Jewish colleagues and dialogue partners. While it may signal support to Palestinians and Jewish anti-Israel groups, it does not accomplish anything for them.
My job revolves around reporting on methods attempting to solve economic injustice. From an economic standpoint, this move is nothing short of hypocritical – it assumes some sort of economic moral superiority is possible. (As if any group of people can entirely remove themselves from “unjust” practices, or event thoroughly attempt to do so.)
The denomination’s communication about this issue has consistently been inadequate in comprehensively addressing the nuances of this situation. The inability for the denomination to effectively communicate its intentions to its external publics has seemingly caused more problems than it has attempted to solve. At least, if it has solved problems, the communication of such has been equally unacceptable.
The PC(USA) should try to commit themselves to be partners in peace. Sometimes that means ensuring relationships are built and nurtured on both sides of a conflict. This is harder then spending years engaged in hypothetical conversations about something that has no impact, but probably more productive.
Many in the Chicago Presbytery have strong ties with their American Jewish religious leaders and communities. I am glad that for today, at least, the need to build these complex relationships was affirmed and was not risked to appease a need for moral superiority.
(Photo used with permission from WikiCommons)