The Vote Against Divestment: Three Reasons to Cheer

By now, most of our readers have certainly heard of the momentous victory for fairness at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Birmingham. Because I spent considerable professional time working on this issue for two years through my work with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, accompanied a group of pro-Israel Presbyterian activists to Israel, spent a few days in Birmingham and testified before the Peacemaking Committee, I have much to unburden myself of. I began with a post a few days ago; I hope that readers will excuse me and simply ignore my rants if I belabor the point. They can always switch to Solitaire.

As far as I can tell, there are three reasons to cheer this development. I will save the most obvious for last, and first talk about the ones you will not be reading about elsewhere.

The Presbyterians don’t hate us. Their leaders (more accurately, some of their leaders) do, but not the folks in the pews. Consider the inappropriateness of my very attendance. Picture a few thousand of the church faithful, gathered for important church business, prayer and study, and in walk a few of our kind, sporting beards and large yarmulkes. (Trying to jokingly convince them that I was a cardinal-in-training hoping for an upgrade to a red yarmulke did not prove convincing. Maybe it was the tzitzis around my belt. Maybe my mannerism yelled, “New York Member of the Tribe,” even after thirty years in LA.) You would think our presence would attract a few negative comments, a larger number of frowns, and many disapproving (or at least curious) stares. It didn’t happen. The modal response was people initiating conversation with something like, “We are SO happy that you could join us!”

They meant it in two ways. The clueless were genuinely happy to have people outside their community share their event. A larger number instantly figured that we were somehow involved with the anti-divestment campaign, and expressed their support for our position. Approval was palpable. A member of the Orthodox shul became a protest march of one. He walked around the Convention Center floor with a huge placard reading “Divestment is Racism.” He encountered precisely one angry participant who felt very strongly in an opposite direction. A great number of people he interacted with cheered him on or gave him a thumbs-up. These are salt-of-the-earth decent Americans, who want spirituality in their lives, and live a far more wholesome life style than what I am surrounded by in Los Angeles. When Mashiach (the Messiah) arrives and offers them what they are really looking for, they will be the quickest non-Jewish learners.

Disclaimer: approval for Israel’s position should not be confused with a passionate embrace of her cause. Years of Palestinian propaganda have left their mark. The romance has cooled somewhat. Many want a strong Israel, but believe that Israel is victimizing defenseless Palestinians. There are also many who have crossed over to the other side. (Of course, there are also those who started off antisemitic, and haven’t budged an inch.) We have much work ahead of us. What is important is that many of those we should be talking to are positively predisposed towards us.

A second reason to cheer is a cadre of remarkable individuals who worked tirelessly on fixing a broken denomination. I get choked up when I think of them, and have a large hakoras hatov (owning up to favors received) obligation to discharge. They have been the silver lining of the dark cloud of hostility towards Israel and Jews, brightening my days for the last two years. They include pastors of mega-churches in urban areas, and smaller churches in rural areas. They include young people and older people, elders and just regular folks. Some are brilliant tacticians, deep thinkers, creative writers. Some have let their businesses and professional practices suffer while they devoted every moment available for two years to battle what they thought was a moral outrage. They include liberals and conservatives.

I wish you could meet some of them. I stand in awe of their commitment and enriched by their friendship. I cannot fully fathom why they do what they do. Evangelicals act, to a certain extent, out of self-interest. They fully believe that they will themselves receive G-d’s blessing only if they support His people. (I see absolutely nothing wrong with this. Would it only be that more people followed G-d’s rules, even out of self-interest!) Mainline Protestants share no such assumption. They are simply good people, infatuated with doing the right thing. We should be proud to have such allies.

Now for what I was expected to place first – why we think this vote was a rare PR gift to Israel. I won’t repeat the background and analysis that you can find elsewhere. I am scheduled to publish a larger piece on that in next week’s Jewish Press.

Here are the facts. Two years ago, PCUSA’s leadership (heavily tilted towards the Palestinian side for reasons that deserve another posting) sneaked a resolution by its delegates that virtually no one understood. It called for a program of selective divestment against companies doing business in Israel and profiting from the Occupation. It proved to be unpopular with the rank and file, detested by Jewish groups, and beloved by the pro-Palestinian lobby that had settled on a BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) strategy.

A dedicated group of Presbyterians challenged the leadership. They came to Birmingham equipped for a fight. They persevered. They did not get everything they wanted, but they got the crucial committee that presented its recommendation to the full floor to present a document that was almost unanimous, in an effort to bring peace to their church and heal the divisions. That document began with an apology to Jews for the hurtful action of two years ago, called it flawed, and substituted language that calls for responsible investment in entities that foster peace, conspicuously deleting the word “divestment.” Could that theoretically be used down the road to pull funds from a company they believed was hurting the peace process? Sure. But why jump through all the hoops if nothing was meant to change? Clearly, the delegates who voted for this measure (94%!) saw this as a change they could live with.

A measure of how important this vote was is the extent that the leadership of PCUSA has shifted their mendacity vehicle into overdrive. The facts did not stop Committee chairman Gretchen Graf (appointed by church leadership) from introducing the measure on the floor with her own monologue, which was not supported by the document. She said that divestment was now to be used only as a last resort. Her speech was enough to fool the New York Times, which embraced her contra-factual analysis as their own. (Gretchen Graf has an interesting way with words. On the first anniversary of 9/11, she had this to say: “One year ago today, 19 young men on a mission profoundly changed our lives and the life of our nation. This was an act of faith and courage, a carefully planned statement against what they saw as the evils of a corrupt and oppressive nation. They were willing to give their lives so that the world would see their outrage.” Even I don’t believe she meant what she seemed to say, but a wordsmith she ain’t.)

Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick has never lost an opportunity to display his animus towards us. (Even before it became fashionable, he had publicly denounced Israel as apartheid.) He did not disappoint. Earlier today, he told a press conference that the divestment resolution of 2004 had not been overturned. One of my Presbyterian friends called the speech “Clintonesque.” If “overturned” means 180 degrees, Kirkpatrick is technically correct. It was only changed 179 degrees.

Thank G-d, he – together with his Palestinian masters – have been able to do only minimal damage. The majority of media outlets – general (e.g.Beliefnet), Christian (e.g. Christianity Today), and Jewish – are reporting the vote for what it is: a major position shift from 2004.

We pray that just as the 2004 resolution led many others to consider the same move, the 2006 position will cause other denominations to step back and reconsider the complexity of a conflict that is beyond their competence to fix by sophomoric and imbalanced measures. Instead, they should become honest, trusted brokers, ready to bring peace to any Israelis and Palestinians who sincerely want it.

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4 Responses

  1. will spotts says:

    I would offer a fourth reason to cheer: the subsequent action of this GA identifying suicide bombing and terrorism as crimes against humanity takes a lot of the “credibility” out of the spin of certain Presbyterian officials.

  2. Brother Bob says:

    Richard Cizik, of the National Association of Evenglicals (NAE) likes to point out that most members of mainline denominations are much more Orthodox than their leadership. Many, of not most, mainline baal habatim are basically Orthodox in their Christian belief. It is the leadership that have issues with their faith.

  3. Nachum Lamm says:

    It should also be pointed out that at least some of those who voted against did so because they felt this didn’t reverse things in favor of Israel enough.

  4. Kirk Epstein says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, I enjoyed meeting you in Birmingham. I am leaving my email and so you can add me to your contacts. I hope you can come again to Birmingham, just to visit. I appreciate the accuracy of your article. I felt positive about the outcome of the Presbyterian Divestment vote after personally meeting many of the attendees of the convention. I think you and your colleagues did a wonderful job representing the pro-Israel “Jewish Position”. Yofie! Hurray!

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