Others have written eloquently on the dynamics leading to divestment resolutions and similar activities at churches, universities, cities and civic institutions. As Will Spotts illustrates in Pride and Prejudice (a definitive analysis of what led to the Presbyterian Church's divest-from-Israel decision), such movements can invariably be traced back to leaders grown distant from followers. Listening only to one another, they shield themselves from opinions (and, more disturbingly, from facts) that contradict the world-view driving this headlong rush towards the divestment precipice, a reckless trek storming ahead under the banner of virtue, and - frequently - of witness.
Others have argued about the morality or effectiveness of singling out a single party in the Arab-Israeli dispute, and whether divestment is considered moral leverage or economic punishment usually depends on one's pre-existing political opinion on this particular worldly conflict.
Yet what does an embrace of divestment mean for those institutions asked to cast their vote in favor of one side or the other of the Middle East struggle? And is it axiomatic that this conflict is so important, so central, that every civic organization is shirking its moral duty if it chooses not to take a stand? Or does something more sinister drive divestment, a darker force that threatens all who embrace it?
If I may: an historic flashback to the late 1980s when James Zogby's Arab American Institute (AAI) was making impressive gains getting language critical of Israel written into the platforms of state Democratic parties across the country. With the first Intifada still a staple of nightly newscasts, the AAI appealed to the better nature of progressive opinion, selling a story that consisted exclusively of Palestinian victims of Israeli human rights abusers. Yet when Israeli's were allowed a human face in the discussion, an identity defined not as monsters, but as men and women with their own legitimate claims (and grievances), these same state parties realized that their reputation was too important to sell in hasty support of what someone else was telling them was their only moral choice.
Fast forward to today and replace the Democratic Party with the Presbyterian Church (and other mainline protestant denominations). And replace the Arab American Institute with Sabeel , the Christian-Arab organization that has driven many of the church-based divestment projects in the last two years.
Or replace PCUSA with the city of Somerville (a city outside of Boston that was the recent site of the country's definitive municipal divestment battle), and replace Sabeel with the Somerville Divestment Project (SDP) , a group of Boston-area anti-Israel activists who almost managed to get divestment voted through by Somerville's leaders without the knowledge or input of the city's citizens.
Or replace Somerville with the Association of University Teachers (AUT) , a UK union of educators that recently voted in (and out) a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli centers of learning. And replace the SDP with the small group of extremists within that organization that succeeded in getting their boycott passed - causing a worldwide academic furor - before union members had time to notice, much less organize an ultimately successful counter campaign.
In each of these cases, a small group of dedicated partisans has targeted an institution: a party, a church, a city, a union, and demanded that they put their reputation behind one side in an extraordinarily complex conflict. And in each case, their message was the same: The conflict is not complex, it is simple. Palestinians are suffering (here are the photos and stories to prove it) and Israel is to blame. The Arabs are the blacks of the pre-civil rights American South or South Africa and Israel is Bull Connor and the Boers. There is no moral ambiguity, there is only an immensely simple question: How can you and your organization claim to stand for human rights, for the rights of the downtrodden, for witness, and refuse to take the stand we are demanding based on information we have carefully selected for you to see?
Yet if these arguments are so compelling, why the avoidance of democratic process in each and every one of these situations? Why the appeal to elites or the parliamentary maneuvers that have led to divestment's only successes to date? And, again, is this subject - alone among human rights issues - so critical that every civic organization must take a stand?
Divestment advocates provide a host of reasons why their issue should be on the agenda of anyone they choose. Most frequently, church, city or university retirement funds or endowments that include equities in companies that benefit Israel are characterized as "investing" in Israel and thus divestment represents "evening the playing field." (Interestingly, these same advocates never claim that shares in energy stocks represent an institution's "investment" in the Arab side of the Arab-Israeli conflict.)
Yet these rationales becloud rather than reveal the truth. For in all of these cases, the first goal is to get a respected organization to side with Israel's critics. Only after that targetting is a reason found to justify the campaign (and, at times it seems that a single share of Caterpillar stock is enough to invite divestment into your city, school or house of worship). But why make PCUSA or Somerville or the AUT or Harvard attach their name to the divestment cause? The answer, in a word, is "reputation."
AAI or Sabeel or SDP calling for a boycott of Israeli investment gets very few column inches in the paper, or moments of airtime on TV or radio. But the Presbyterian Church adding its name to such calls gets notice. And that, at its essence, is the point. A successful appeal to a respected institution allows a minority of Israel critics to punch substantially above their weight, making a small group of partisans seem somehow like a "movement." That is why anything goes in the drive to get organizations of repute to join in the struggle. Democracy? Telling both sides of the story? Appealing to the head and heart, rather than the gut? Mere speedbumps to divestment's advocates who will use any tool (and any person or group) necessary to put their message into the mouth of an organization whose reputation can serve their narrow cause.
It is no accident that institutions recruited to the divestment banner are asked to put their most sacred assets on the alter in order to join the cause. In the case of the AUT, it was academic freedom. And in the case of PCUSA, it is Christian witness. Someone who expresses a political opinion can change his or her mind, but a person (or organization) that has staked its most valued asset: its reputation, on a political issue will find it that much harder pulling back from the brink.
Yet in taking these actions, churches like PCUSA are mortgaging more than their own reputations. Just as the AUT was willing to wreak havoc on academic freedom under the guise of protecting it, these churches are using the voice of religious moral authority in general, the same voice that proved so important during the desegregation, anti-Vietnam War and anti-Apartheid movements, to support narrow and partisan ends pushed by a small but highly vocal minority.
If the Church of England or the Presbyterians have had difficulty making their voice heard in major moral and political debates in recent years, how much harder will it be to listen to any religious authority in the future when the public realizes that this authority is susceptible to hijacking and moral blackmail?
Even worse, churches advocating divestment are also mortgaging assets they do not own: the ethical power of social investment, the economic power of the boycott, responsibly wielded as it was during the anti-Apartheid era, in order to float a morally bankrupt Israel divestment policy. One can imagine a time in the near future when a corporation or nation that truly deserves censure can point to the actions of the churches as a demonstration of how legitimate boycotts directed at them are just another example of partisan politics wrapped in ill-fitting moral garments.
One must struggle mightily to ignore the fact that it is divestment's alliances with money and power , not simple righteousness, that - in part - gives Israel's critics a bigger megaphone than those advocating to alleviate the suffering multitudes of Kurdistan, Tibet and Sudan. Today, kings and presidents and chairmen of the board must pay homage to the Palestinian rights and Israeli wrongs, at least in the world of global politics and economics that often requires compromise and occasional cynicism. But that does not mean such cynical calculations need to filter down to our cities, our schools, our churches and synagogues, the local building blocks of our civil society.
In light of all of the forces working in the modern world to push people away from each other, keeping a church afloat, making a school work, holding a community together is a miraculous achievement, one which requires careful nurturing, support and respect. Yet divestment only sees such civic institutions merely as props, as groups whose reputation can be leveraged for their cause, regardless of the wreckage, the divisive bitterness, the watering down of sacred causes like human rights (that can only stand so much exploitation).
There can be no winners if the PCUSA and other churches continue to forge ahead on the divestment road they have staked out. Within a few years, divestment advocates will abandon this tactic (for that is all it is, the latest tactic in a decades-long propaganda war), and move on, leaving the churches that have sacrificed their reputation to survey the wreckage these reckless choices have caused. While it would be sad to see church leaders sacrifice their own names and reputations in the sucker's bet, the reputations of their institutions - of Christian witness - is something they are not empowered to sell.