A vote by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to use economic sanctions against
certain companies doing business with Israel – namely those that profit
from the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – has set off a quiet
firestorm within the American religious community.
The Presbyterians’ decision to consider divesting such businesses from its
$8 billion portfolio, coupled with the prospect that the Episcopal Church
and other churches might do the same, is adding to tensions that have risen
over recent years between mainline Protestant churches and the American
Jewish community over their differing views of the Israeli- Palestinian
It is also stirring Jewish groups to try to head off divestment – and to
rebuild a rapport with these churches, with whom they have long worked to
further civil rights and social justice.
“To call for divestment played into all the language of boycott, from
earlier periods in Jewish history to the Arab boycott of Israel. It caused
an explosion in the Jewish community,” says David Elcott, director of
interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
In some ways, last summer’s divestment vote has forced a conversation about
the Middle East conflict. It also raises the stakes for those who, earlier
this year, launched a bid to renew the old coalition. Christian and Jewish
leaders have met twice, hosted by AJC and the National Council of Churches.
From discussions on the “theology of land” to the divestment issue, the
religious leaders “spoke from their pain” and asked tough questions of one
another, says the Rev. Shanta Premawardhana, NCC interfaith secretary.
Tensions rose when a Presbyterian delegation traveling in the Middle East
in October met with members of Hizbullah, the Lebanese group on the US
terrorist list. The church’s national leadership disavowed the action. Then
in November, the church received a letter threatening arson against
Presbyterian churches unless it halted the divestment process. Jewish
groups condemned the threat.
Last week, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs asked Protestants to
reject divestment in favor of joint efforts to end the conflict.
Elaborating on Jewish concerns, it said the divestment process is
discriminatory, will provoke intransigence on both sides, and “is
dangerously ill-matched to our passionately shared vision of a peaceful
resolution to the conflict”¦