PC(USA), Divestment, and Israel-Palestine: What’s Actually Happening

Huffpost is reporting that the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected a motion to selectively divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola–companies that proponents of divestment charge with profiting from bloodshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What’s important to realize about divestment efforts is that they aren’t primarily about ethical investing. Divestment is generally meant to be a political statement, with the money functioning to give the statement some teeth. It’s an exercise in putting your money where your mouth is.

My own opinion is that divestment campaigns are wonderful as political statements, but that it’s a bit disingenuous to claim that ethical investing rather than politics is the force driving the effort. Truthfully, the only way to invest in a way that’s spotlessly ethical is to not invest at all. In a global economy, everything is connected. That sounds like a tired hippie platitude, but in this case it’s actually true. Even if a church organization could invest exclusively in companies with just economic practices (however those are defined), it would still be the case that the livelihood of those righteous firms is dependent on their doing business with less than savory firms. The sad reality is that, in a globalized, large-scale economy, participation is complicity.

If anything, our own complicity in unjust economic systems heightens the need for overtly political speech. In Democratically elected societies, power consists in either money or popular opinion. It’s best to see divestment efforts, then, as an attempt at shifting discourse and, ultimately, public opinion.

In this case, supporters of divestment efforts are hoping to show their disapproval of certain Israeli policies. Namely, Israel’s construction of settlements that are illegal under international law and their bull-dozing of Palestinian wells and homes. Seems like a pretty reasonable position to take, if you ask me.

But the Stand with Israel crowd isn’t having it. They say that divestment will do irreparable harm to Jewish-Christian relations. If it strikes you as odd that refraining from giving money to a construction company would set back relationships between two entire religions, that’s because it is, in fact, odd. What’s really going on here is more political posturing. In many cases, “Stand with Israel” is functionally equivalent to the American saying “Support Our Troops.” They’re really saying that you need to give full sanction to any and all shows of right-wing, expansionist militarism. The thinking is that any criticism must signal disloyalty.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is incredibly complicated, and there are no easy solutions. One thing I can say is that, like with most other things, the quality of discourse really needs to improve. To say that “hey, maybe you shouldn’t be bulldozing civilians’ wells” shouldn’t incite fear that two religions will be at each others’ throats.

Oh, and also, it’s important to note that some Christians believe that Israel needs to be in tact in order for Jesus to come back (that’s an entirely different blog post). That tends to be a more Fundamentalist/Conservative Evangelical thing, but there’s certainly some chance that those sort of beliefs are influencing the Mainline debate as well.

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3 comments

    • jaredhillaryruark

      I’ll have to make a closer study of the Kairos document and then give that a read again. His big issue seems to be that “In constructing a dichotomy between particularism and universalism, however, they also privilege some biblical themes over others.” Well, duh. That’s sort of what theology is. This mostly boils down to the author saying “I don’t like your theology, so you’ve failed theologically.”
      His point about failing to engage Jewish understandings on their own terms is probably fairly valid, though.

    • jaredhillaryruark

      I also don’t know how he can object to people pointing out that power dynamics have shifted with a straight face. I mean, Israel has nuclear weapons. Having nuclear weapons means you get to do whatever the hell you want without worrying about whether or not you step on toes.

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