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The Presbyterians debate Palestine

I have spent the last three days in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, participating in the Presbyterian Church-USA’s consideration of resolutions on Middle Eastern and peacemaking issues. Most notably, this includes a call for the church to divest its shares in three American companies – Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard – whose products are used for “non-peaceful pursuits” that aid the Israeli occupation of Palestinians.

The bottom line is that the church did not vote in favor of divestment, by a razor thin margin of 333 to 331 against with two abstentions. Instead it voted to invest “constructively” and “positively” in both Palestine and Israel, and engage both peoples in activities that could promote peacemaking and improve the lives of Palestinians living under occupation. It also voted overwhelmingly to boycott all products made in Israeli settlements, a major gain for those battling for justice, given that the Presbyterians are the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

Behind this result, however, is a far deeper and more complex story of gains and losses, and strengths and weaknesses, for those who support divestment as a means of pressuring Israel into ending its cruel and criminal acts against Palestinians.

Based on my participation in the congress, and close observation of the debate by both sides, I would make a number of initial observations and draw several conclusions.

This process reminds us what happens when ordinary Americans seriously debate such a contentious issue, and identify the rights and wrongs on both sides.

Such debates rarely happen in public or political institutions in the United States, such as the U.S. Congress, most notably. The Presbyterian Church has studied, debated and grappled with this issue for nearly a decade, and the church committee (Mission Responsibility Through Investment, or MRTI) leading this process finally presented a report Monday recommending divestment.

The really intense deliberations occurred in the so-called Committee 15 Monday and Tuesday. The discussions covered divestment, boycotting products from Israeli companies working in the occupied territories, naming Israel’s occupation policies as a case of apartheid, U.S. policy toward Iran and Syria, and other topics.

That committee of 48 very typical Americans who are not Middle East experts heard detailed arguments for and against the MRTI committee report that called for divestment, and then voted affirmatively by a solid majority of 36 for, 11 against, and one abstention. Similarly, they voted by 37-6-2 to boycott products of Israeli companies in the occupied territories. When Americans have the facts, hear both sides, and vote their conscience, this is what happens.

These affirmative committee votes and the razor-thin loss by two votes on the divestment issue before the full congress came in the face of immense and sophisticated lobbying by pro-Israeli forces from within the church and by American Jewish groups. It is fair to assume that in the days between the committee votes and the full congress vote Thursday, more pressure was applied to achieve the 333-331 vote against divestment.

The two conclusions I draw from watching this process close up are that: First, the old pro-Israel arguments that draw on Holocaust reminders, anti-Semitism accusations, and endangering or delegitimizing Israel are steadily losing their impact among many Americans, who are both more aware of the realities in occupied Palestinian lands and also support Israel but object to its colonial and criminal policies in those occupied lands.

And second, the pro-Israeli lobbying forces in the United States continue to be very effective when they apply their full force to an issue, as happened here. Pro-Israeli groups in the U.S. have immensely more leverage than pro-Palestinian groups – but that advantage diminishes rapidly when Americans decide to hear both sides of an issue and act on the basis of their own ethical principles.

Most Presbyterians expressed their desire to help the Palestinians, end the occupation, and also show their strong support for Israel’s security and legitimacy. Most felt caught between two valid narratives they supported, and feared being seen as taking sides.

So they chose the path of “positive investment and engagement” with both sides that seemed to resolve their dilemma and express their support for Israelis and Palestinians alike. They are, after all, a church, not a political party; they wanted to behave on the basis of their ethical commitment to act as a peacemaker, not a judge.

When the Presbyterian Church continued its deliberations Friday morning, the full congress voted by a more than two-thirds margin (71 percent for, 28 percent against) to boycott all products from companies working in Israeli settlements in occupied Arab lands. When this motion was first discussed in Committee 15, it only targeted two Israeli companies. But the committee expanded it to cover all products from settlements, indicating how strongly the Presbyterians felt about opposing the criminal settlements endeavor. This struggle for justice is in its early days, and is making important steps forward, alongside a few sideways moves here and there.

In the larger picture of continuing efforts to focus worldwide attention on the criminal and inhuman dimensions of the Israeli occupation, and the frequent complicity in this of foreign companies and governments, a significant trajectory of political sentiments was revealed in Pittsburgh. It should offer some hope and consolation to Palestinians who fight for their rights and dignity, and concerns to Israelis and others who justify or merely ignore the criminality of the occupation.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 07, 2012, on page 7.

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