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In June of 2014, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) took an historic vote to divest itself of its stock in three companies – Motorola Solutions, Hewlett Packard, and Caterpillar, Inc. The struggle to win this vote created remarkable partnerships between Christians and Jews who have broken the old rules of engagement that defined Jewish-Christian dialogue, rules tacitly specifying that the topic of the conflict in Israel and Palestine must be off the table. Members of Jewish Voice for Peace and a group of Presbyterian activists withstood significant pressure to insist that their voices must be heard.
Rick Ufford-Chase, Executive Director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and Rabbi Alissa Wise from the Rabbinic Council of Jewish Voice for Peace, became friends as they did this work together. These are their personal reflections about the long journey to a successful vote for divestment, and about the implications of that journey.
In June of 2004, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin the process of “phased, selective divestment” from companies benefitting from or providing support for the occupation of Palestinian territories by the State of Israel. I was elected Moderator of that same General Assembly, and presided over that vote. As a result, I was the chief interpreter of that action for the following two years, during which time I traveled around the United States and all over the world as Moderator – our denomination’s highest elected office filled by a person not part of our national staff.
My thinking – and my activism– have evolved through a slow progression that is easy to recount in hindsight, but would have been impossible for me to predict ahead of time.
2001 was a major awakening as my general impressions (many of which were totally erroneous) were blown out of the water during my first visit to Israel and Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams. During that trip, we met with an Israeli leader from the Knesset, Christian and Muslim Palestinian families, and a middle-class Israeli family living in an East Jerusalem “neighborhood” that occupied Palestinian territory. I witnessed Palestinian children being denied entry to the neighborhood where they went to school. I saw other Palestinian children throwing rocks in an ineffectual expression of rage against Israeli soldiers. I watched as a gang of Jewish settlers in a Palestinian neighborhood of Hebron brutally beat a young Palestinian man while Israeli soldiers stood by without taking action. Most of all, I learned that most of what I thought I knew about the region and its people had no basis in reality.
In 2004, following the Assembly where I was elected Moderator and the vote was taken to consider phased, selective divestment, I shifted gears from being a bystander to having a seat at the table. I became an interpreter, trying to help others to understand our church’s actions, which I characterized primarily as an act of conscience: The PC(USA) determined that, insofar as possible, we did not want to hold stock in companies that were involved in activities which supported the occupation. Though this decision clearly had serious implications for many, many people, for me it was primarily an act of conscience similar to our decision not to invest in tobacco or alcohol or companies whose primary purpose is military.
2008 was a turning point for me, and for many others who were slow to embrace the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Like much of the world, I watched in horror as Israel carried out a brutal military action in which over a thousand civilians in Gaza were killed – Operation Cast Lead. This event, in hindsight, radicalized me like no other.
As we prepared for the General Assembly in 2010, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship carried out a three-month-long discernment that resulted in our statement of the principles that would undergird our activist efforts. (That statement can be read at www.presbypeacefellowship.org on the page on Israel and Palestine.)
The pivotal moment in the 2010 Assembly came when the Middle East Committee forged a “third way,” and asked those of us who were pro-divestment to join those who were against divestment in seeking common ground. At the pivotal moment when the matter of divestment came before the plenary, I made a decision not to speak in favor of the recommendation to divest ourselves of stock in Caterpillar Corporation, which sells bulldozers to the State of Israel through a military contract with the United States. At the urging of my anti-divestment colleagues, both Presbyterian and Jewish, I opted to allow more time for moderate voices in the American Jewish and Israeli communities to prevail. In so doing, I went on record with those colleagues to say that the only effective way to judge the impact of our decision would be to determine, over the coming years, whether the expansion of illegal settlements built by Israel in Palestine had been halted.
In 2011, I spent the second week of Advent in Bethlehem with Palestinian Christians who made it clear to me that their call for support from Christians like me around the world is a matter of life and death. I became more and more clear that, if we expect Palestinians to eschew violence in response to the occupation, then we have no choice but to support their call for the nonviolent direct action of the international BDS movement.
By 2012, it was clear that the expansion of the settlements was accelerating and the mechanics of the occupation were more entrenched than ever. With the exception of Jewish Voice for Peace, few Jewish organizations appeared to be willing or able to risk calling the State of Israel to account for its illegal construction of settlements, much less threatening any real consequence for those actions. At the Presbyterian General Assembly, I met Rabbi Alissa and her colleagues – an amazing group of mostly young adults who put in long hours crafting personal stories of how they came to oppose Israel’s actions in order to share those stories with commissioners. Their witness gave me the courage to find my own voice, and to speak out without equivocation about the need to embrace BDS as an effective nonviolent strategy to end the occupation.
Divestment was no longer simply a matter of conscience. I finally understood it clearly as the only faithful response to Palestinians who have waited for more than forty years for the end of that occupation. I spoke publicly in favor of divestment from three companies (Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard) at that year’s Presbyterian General Assembly. We lost the vote 333 to 331 with two abstentions – the most heartbreaking experience I have had in nearly thirty years of attending those Assemblies.
Finally in June of 2014, after ten years of deliberation, study, intense lobbying efforts from all sides, and a concentrated organizing effort by Presbyterian activists supported by colleagues from Jewish Voice for Peace, our General Assembly voted by a seven-vote margin (310 to 307) to divest from three specific companies that are actively profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
After ten years of active engagement in these questions, here are some things I know:
There is a growing movement of Jewish colleagues who have shown remarkable courage and led many of us to find our voice and act on our convictions that lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians can only come about when the occupation is dismantled and both Palestinians and Israelis can experience genuine security.
Though Presbyterians may have started down the divestment road as an expression of conscience, and even stated overtly that this decision has no implications for the broader movement for BDS, everyone I know on both sides of the debate is clear that the decision of our General Assembly to go ahead with divestment has huge implications for the broader movement for justice for Palestine and peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.
As we take this action, our commitment to counter all expressions of both anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia in our own country and around the world must grow exponentially.
Our work is not over. Alissa and I and others are building on the powerful bonds we have formed over the last several years to build the strongest possible spiritually-grounded movement to bring the occupation to an end and create a lasting peace for Palestinians and Israelis.
I’ve been to two Presbyterian General Assemblies, the first in Pittsburgh in 2012 and the second this past summer in Detroit. Both times I came at the invitation of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of PC(USA) as part of a large multifaith coalition invited to be present as witnesses and supporters as the Presbyterians considered an historic resolution to divest from three American companies profiting from the Israeli occupation. Both times I attended with a delegation of rabbis and young Jews, all members of Jewish Voice for Peace.
This time, after 10 years of deliberation and an intense week of praying, talking, listening, crying, and arguing together, the Presbyterian Church (USA) took the courageous step of acting to divest, despite strong pressure against it.
As anyone watching the debate can attest, this is a church of people seeking to do right. Each commissioner was earnestly wrestling with their own prophetic witness, their own moral compass, their own call to act in the face of injustice. Dozens of commissioners approached me throughout the week, often tearfully, seeking counsel in their careful decision-making process.
While I was impressed with the openness Presbyterians modeled in their inviting outside opinion to their process, I was deeply saddened that the most insistent voices against divestment were from my own community. Why does the mainstream Jewish community insist on fighting divestment instead of the Israeli occupation? Why label the moral, deliberate, thoughtful decision of the Presbyterian Church “outrageous,” instead of Israel’s continuing subjugation of the Palestinian people?
What we didn’t know when PC(USA) voted in early June was how the rest of this summer would unfold. We didn’t know about Operation Protective Edge, the razing of Gaza, the hundreds of children who would be killed, the thousands injured, the tens of thousands displaced, the hundreds of thousands traumatized. We didn’t know just how strong a message of concern and urgency would be needed to pressure Israel to make a change. The Presbyterian vote is even more relevant now than it was just a few months ago.
The Presbyterians’ decision remains a major development in the longstanding work to bring the US into alignment with the rest of the world in calling for an end to Israel’s now 47-year-long occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The need now is for other Christian denominations, faith-rooted communities, and people of conscience to follow suit and divest.
To be certain, divestment in and of itself does not overnight remedy any urgent human rights issues. But the decision to divest is machloketl’shemshamyim, a disagreement for the sake of heaven, which for me is one of the most important spiritual concepts in Judaism. After all, throughout history tension and disagreement have been the catalysts for change in every social movement.
Divestment says to Palestinians: the ongoing violations of your human rights are worthy of action on the global stage. Divestment says to companies and the Israeli government: the occupation is both morally and economically untenable. Divestment has become one of our best hopes for nonviolent change.
It was an honor to witness the Presbyterian process in Detroit. I encourage my colleagues and friends in the Jewish community to listen deeply to the message being sent by our Presbyterian friends and to challenge ourselves to open our hearts to it. Interfaith partnerships are never easy. They always require risk, generosity, and humility. They demand that we stay at the table even in moments of deep disagreement.
It is taught in Jewish tradition that “Every generation must scribe its own Torah.” That is, it is up to each generation to leave behind for the next generation our own code for ethical living, our own stories of the pursuit of God, the pursuit of peace and justice, our own efforts to honor the reality that each of us is made b’tselemelohim, in the image of God. It is my hope that our generation’s Torah, our generation’s sacred legacy, will be one scribed together by our sacred, delicate, and valuable work of interfaith cooperation. I want to be able to tell my children about the “interfaith Torah” we wrote together – Jews, Christians and Muslims, coming togetherl’shemshamayim, for the sake of heaven, to take concrete action to end the occupation.
Rick Ufford-Chase is the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and co-founder of the multifaith Community of Living Traditions in Stony Point, New York. He has traveled to Israel and Palestine multiple times, and has been a lead organizer in passing the overture to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard.
Rabbi Alissa Wise is the Co-Director of Organizing at Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and co-founder of the JVP Rabbinical Council.
(photos courtesy of Jewish Voice for Peace)