Over the weekend the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from three American companies that provide services to Israel’s security forces. That vote came in spite of significant and laudable efforts on the part of Jewish communal leaders who engaged with the Presbyterians in an effort to dissuade them from this anti-Israel act. Why did they fail? Perhaps that’s an unfair question. After all, the vote was extremely close with the assembly of the Church’s elders splitting 310 in favor of the divestment to 303 voting against. Maybe efforts from the Jewish community helped convince many not to divest. But in the end they weren’t able to convince enough. Where did their strategy go wrong?
A pretty strong indication became apparent during the course of a CNN interview following the Presbyterian vote. Speaking in defense of the move was Presbyterian moderator Heath Rada. One couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the man. He admitted that he had not cast a vote on the issue and as the grilling by CNN anchors unfolded it became more and more apparent that Rada didn’t really believe in the divestment he was now being obliged to defend. Over and over again Rada kept repeating that this was not intended as an attack on “our Jewish brothers and sisters” but quite quickly the familial insinuation became distastefully patronizing. I wonder just how many American Jews reciprocate the suggestion of such kinship with the Presbyterian Church right now.
Next up was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism. By all accounts Jacobs had been present at the vote and had done much to try and talk the church elders around. Although, given how the vote went in the end, it seems he didn’t get much in return for his trouble. Still, speaking on CNN he was as eloquent a spokesperson as anyone could wish for. He unequivocally slammed the grotesque anti-Jewish publication Zionism Unsettled (which is still on sale at the Presbyterian Church’s website), and rightly pointed out that this vote is an affirmation of global BDS–boycott, divestment, sanctions.
Yet as Rabbi Jacobs laid out his argument it became quite clear why he and other liberal Jews failed to prevent that BDS vote and why they will continue to fail to do so in the future. Jacobs’s argument hinged on one point: votes like this hurt Jewish feelings. But that’s a pretty weak argument. If one really believes that Israel is oppressing and tormenting Palestinians, then the hurt feelings of American Jewry are all very regretful, but in the face of injustice, what right do American Jews have to say it upsets them to see Israel’s military activities boycotted? If Israel’s misdemeanors in the West Bank are so very wrong then instead of complaining about their feelings, shouldn’t good liberal Jews support such moves?
And Rabbi Jacobs reiterated the legitimacy of these notions even during the few minutes he was speaking on CNN, so one can only imagine what he might have said in his much lengthier comments to the church elders. As an alternative to boycotts Jacobs suggested that he and the Presbyterians should go meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and protest settlements. But by suggesting that settlements are what needs protesting Jacobs strengthens the notion that settlements are the underlying problem. If that’s true—and if Israelis refuse to accept this—then why not boycott them just like you might place sanctions on any other state that’s gone rogue?
There is however a much stronger moral argument against the latest Presbyterian divestment. The first point is that the companies they are divesting from provide security services against terrorism that help stop their “Jewish brothers and sisters” from being murdered. Motorola is being divested from for the apparent outrage of providing surveillance technology that protects civilian communities in the West Bank while HP is responsible for the terrible crime of providing materials used for preventing weapons from being smuggled into Gaza by sea. BDS calls these the apparatus of occupation, but are the Presbyterians really telling us that they oppose measures to prevent terrorism targeting civilians? Never mind Jewish feelings, what about defending Jewish lives?
The second point to be stressed here is that those speaking to groups like the Presbyterians have to stop repeating this false narrative that says that Israel is perpetuating the conflict through settlements. It must be reiterated constantly that Israel has legitimate rights in the West Bank that are, yes, necessitated by the present security situation and Palestinian rejectionism but more importantly that are upheld by historical and legal right. There is a strong international law case that people like Rabbi Jacobs refuse to make because they have staked everything on a two-state agreement that may never come.
American Jews can complain about how hurtful boycotts of Israel are, but once they have bought into the idea that Israel is perpetuating the conflict through an illegal occupation on Palestinian land they have already lost the argument. And as for those driving the BDS campaign itself, they don’t care about Jewish feelings; attacking Jews is what BDS is all about.