Presbyterian divestment from companies doing business in Israel is a symbolic gesture. That this is the case is indicated by Presbyterian claims to bearing prophetic witness, by the press releases and other communications on the topic issued by the PC(USA), and by the comparatively limited amount of money the PC(USA) has invested in targeted companies. It is understood that a person or organization cannot ever totally divest from all companies whose products or services may be put to morally questionable uses. Consequently, it is understood that the PC(USA) must, of necessity, profit from immoral enterprises. The selection of Israel as the guiding factor in this divestment initiative is therefore unavoidably a gesture. The intent is to signal that Presbyterians do not approve of the policies of the State of Israel - so much so that they are willing to forgo profits made by investments that further those policies, and that they will use their investments to pressure targeted companies not to sell selected products or services to Israel. No one imagines that this action by itself will have any impact on either Israel or the targeted companies; instead, it is hoped that others will follow the example of Presbyterians. The bottom line is this: Presbyterian divestment is about placing blame.
It will be observed, no doubt, that the PC(USA) has a Mission Responsibility through Investment Committee that often engages companies whose policies violate Presbyterian moral sensibilities and divests from some of them. For example, Presbyterians do not invest in companies that sell tobacco or weapons. These divestment decisions are driven by the nature of the product or service provided by a company or by its business practices. The divestment initiative of the 216th General Assembly of the PC(USA) is distinct because it targets a specific country. In recent memory, such a singling out was done in only two other cases: apartheid South Africa and one company (Talisman) doing business in Sudan. This fact places Israel in a category with Sudan and South Africa. Given the number of severely repressive regimes in the world, one is left to wonder that Israel alone is the current recipient of Presbyterian attentions. That Israel has been singled out by the Presbyterian Church (USA) is confirmed by the sheer volume of critical news stories on the subject carried by the Presbyterian News Service, by the number of statements put out by the Washington Office, by the Stated Clerk’s 2000 communication declaring Israel to be an apartheid state, even by the attention given the matter by various general assemblies. One need not agree with any policies of the Israeli government to find such a singling out extraordinary and worthy of a closer examination.
One factor that accounts for the heightened attention given the Israeli / Palestinian conflict is that it has the potential to escalate into a much larger war. If addressing that fact with legitimate even-handed peacemaking were the center of Presbyterian concern, few people would have a problem with their actions. That there is a bad situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is not in dispute. The issue on which the Presbyterian Church (USA) has chosen to focus, however, is not how to improve the lives of Palestinians. It is not how to bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Instead it is who gets the blame. The fact is that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has officially weighed the State of Israel in its moral balance and found it wanting. Both the 215th (2003) and 216th (2004) General Assemblies have declared that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem are the sole root of all violence in the Middle East. This assessment includes violence carried out by Palestinians against Israeli non-combatants. Such an interpretation is philosophically noxious because it defies all individual accountability for action and places blame squarely on the State of Israel - giving it mythic proportions. If this view is to be held - that the State of Israel is the overwhelming, magical force that causes good people, against their wills, to carry out suicide bombings - normal Christian notions of individual good or evil actions, or indeed of grace and individual salvation, are rendered impossible.
By turning the conversation in this direction the Presbyterian Church (USA) has ventured into perilous waters - a situation all Presbyterians should carefully consider. The mere fact of singling out the State of Israel for blame over many far more repressive regimes is bad enough. The mythical attribution of Palestinian violence to the State of Israel is a form of demonization. The PC(USA) and its official partners (the Middle East Council of Churches, the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, and others) have blamed the State of Israel for a variety of things that taken together describe a mystical, supernatural, evil entity - a demon. According to these sources Israel is responsible for all Palestinian violence. Israel is responsible for making a game of breaking the bones of children. Israel is responsible for the decreasing Christian population in Palestinian controlled areas. Israel is guilty of uprooting olive trees. Israel is responsible for mothers being unable to nurse. Israel is responsible for increased cigarette smoking. Israel is guilty of not providing Palestinians with parks. Israeli soldiers defecate in the homes of Palestinians. Israel is responsible for the building of mosques next to historic churches. Israel runs a crucifixion system with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian victims. Israel puts stones in front of the tomb of Jesus. United States support for Israel is the result of the machinations of the powerful Jewish lobby. Media coverage favorable to Israel (which is in itself a highly dubious description) is the result of Jewish influence in the media. All of these assertions have been either made by the offices of the PC(USA), made by our official partners, or, in a couple of cases, repeated without comment by the Presbyterian News Service.
There is a profound danger in the Presbyterian practice of demonizing the State of Israel: namely the fact that it is nearly impossible to speak of the State of Israel without speaking of Jews. If the State of Israel is described in supernaturally evil terms with hints of deicide, the facts that the State of Israel is a Jewish state and that the State of Israel has considerable American Jewish support become significant. It is impossible to maintain the declared Presbyterian view of the State of Israel without drawing the logical conclusion that Jews who support the State of Israel are also supporting supernatural evil. For a Christian church to venture into such waters after the horrifying history of Christian-Jewish relations is an obscenity. I suggest that we who are Presbyterian need to carefully examine our motives. Are we truly concerned with promoting peace and helping to improve the lives of all residents of Israel and Palestine, or are we looking for someone to blame in order to scapegoat Jews and demonstrate our own presumed moral superiority?