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 Day 19

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An Urgent Question for Presbyterians--and All Americans

Divestment is a Stand for Equality in Israel

by HILTON OBENZINGER

As an American Jew who has spoken out against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for many years, I have been regularly smeared as a "self-hating Jew" and worse.

It little matters that the "radical" ideas I advocated 25 years ago are now common policy: that Israel withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967, that a viable Palestinian state be established, and that security be assured for all. On Thursday in Birmingham, the Presbyterian Church will decide if it will take a stand on the conflict, and it must prepare itself for attacks. It is indeed fitting for this discussion to take place in Birmingham, a city where decades ago, church leaders risked much to take a stand for equal rights.

In its 217th General Assembly Conference, Presbyterian Church leaders will deliberate on whether to call for some form of selective divestment from Israel in response to Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian land and ongoing human rights abuses. This is an urgent question for all Americans. We are indirectly implicated in these abuses, whether we are aware of it or not.

This year, $2.5 billion in aid will be sent to Israel, the most to any country, and the bulk of it goes to the Israeli military. In addition, American businesses continue to invest in Israel, particularly in military weapons systems.

If you wonder why so many people in the Middle East hate American foreign policy, just look at the "special relationship" between Israel and the U.S. government and American business. People in the Middle East know that Israel’s human rights abuses–including land seizures, home demolition and segregation of non-Jews in the occupied territories–would not be possible without unconditional support from the United States.

In 2004, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church passed a resolution to investigate selective divestment of holdings in multinational corporations doing business in Israel. Divestment–in which churches and other institutions withdraw investments from companies that profit from human rights abuses–has worked in the past, especially during the movement against South African apartheid.

Such nonviolent, material action can work now.

But the Presbyterian Church is facing pressure to pass resolutions that would overturn its previous commitment to divestment. If it does support divestment, the church will be attacked. Organizations that support Israeli policies will say the church is one-sided, aiding extremists and anti-Semitic.

Moral vision demands courage in the face of pressure, and Presbyterians will have to steel themselves. They will doubt themselves, and they will search their hearts. Many will succumb to the pressure. Wisdom and courage are not easy under those conditions.

But if Presbyterians–and all Americans–regard the conflict with honest eyes, they will see the moral imperative clearly, and they will see the parallels to other injustices they have confronted before. Calling Israeli expansion "settlements" seems benign, for example, but if we understand them to be in reality "segregated housing projects," they suggest dynamics we understand and have rejected. Israel’s separation wall, maze of arbitrary checkpoints, assassinations and other abuses condemned by international law are uncomfortably similar to other relics of past injustices, like South Africa under apartheid.

Presbyterians will be told to focus their attention on other bloody conflicts, such as in Darfur. They should indeed speak out against all injustices–but not to the exclusion of the one conflict in which American taxpayers, businesses and churches have been so deeply implicated.

They will be accused of condoning Palestinian outrages, and they will need the wisdom to know that condemning Israeli policies is not turning a blind eye to terrorist violence. They will also need the courage to stick to their love of justice and peace and take a stand.

All Americans seeking an end to violence in the Middle East should pray the Presbyterian Church will find that courage.

HILTON OBENZINGER is a writer who teaches advanced writing and American literature at Stanford University. E-mail him at obenzinger@stanford.edu.