Talking with Presbyterians

Talking with Presbyterians about Israel
by Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

As the only rabbi in America who works full time in a Presbyterian seminary, my life has been complicated, as my friends can attest, by the decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from companies that do business with Israel. “How can you work for them?” is a question I’ve heard at Shabbos tables, supermarkets, and children’s birthday parties.Luckily it is an easy question to answer — I work for an independent educational institution with a Presbyterian affiliation, not for the national church. I can also proudly say that my Presbyterian colleagues at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City have made extraordinary public statements expressing their dismay at their church’s actions. They have, in fact, taken the lead nationally when it comes to addressing the one-sided rhetoric of these declarations and building constructive relations between Presbyterian and Jewish leaders.But that said, it has been a rocky road. I have met with sensitive and compassionate Presbyterian ministers who support the divestment action. I have had the very difficult task of explaining what is wrong with divesting from Israel, even as I acknowledge that Israel severely restricts the lives of millions of noncitizens and has been charged even by its own watchdog groups with numerous human rights abuses. (Even as I write this the Israeli press is reporting that an Israel Defense Forces company commander is being indicted following an investigation into the October shooting death of a 12-year-old girl in the Rafah refugee camp.) None of the ministers, seminary students, or lay people whom I have met has been vehemently anti-Israel; they simply identify strongly with liberal causes. Back in the ’90s they were supporters of Yitzhak Rabin’s peace efforts and they believe, like most American Jews, that a two-state solution is preferable to the continuing occupation or expulsion of Palestinians or to the Jews being pushed into the sea.But they side with the powerless and oppressed, which, according to nearly every international human rights organization, is the Palestinian population. They are highly critical of the security fence, targeted assassinations, and home demolitions that make up Ariel Sharon’s counteroffensive. Divestment for them is applying a tool that was used to bring down South Africa’s white-dominated apartheid state; in their minds, the same tactic will be effective in Israel. “Israel is the new South Africa” makes sense to them.All this does make sense, in fact, until I remind myself how distorted a view this has become. How did it get to the point where a historical homeland of two peoples that has been contested for the last 3,000 years is seen in the same light as a racist colonial enclave built to exploit the wealth of Africa’s tip? What many Jews fail to understand is that the voices of Palestinian Christians, though they make up only 2 percent of the Palestinian population, are the voices that reach America’s pews. And since the vast majority of leaders in the Palestinian-Christian community have embraced nonviolence and peaceful protest as the way to address occupation, their voices are met with genuine concern and sympathy. The Palestinian Christians who write in church publications, tour the United States, and bring visitors to Israel tell the stories of living under conditions that have seriously deteriorated in the past four years. They are simply bearing witness to the lives of many Palestinian children and elderly who have suffered under the security conditions. And though many Jews would like these Palestinian Christians to lay all the blame at Hamas’ doorstep or place it with the Palestinian authority leadership, the tanks and helicopters and home demolitions have been experienced as a collective and unjust punishment on the innocent by the mighty Zionists. The actions that Presbyterian delegates took last summer at the PCUSA’s General Assembly were made in response to the speech of one such Palestinian Christian, the Rev. Mitri Raheb, who has gone on from the General Assembly to speak in other Christian institutions in the United States as part of a book tour. But I would like to suggest that as persuasive as he and his fellow Palestinian Christians have been in Christian circles, their voices are not what triggered divestment. I believe that there is a much deeper cause to this movement. And it is not anti-Semitism. It is frustration — a by-product of the spiritual and emotional antipathy carried by left-leaning Protestants toward another Protestant, George W. Bush. Truly compassionate Christians are justifiably angered with America’s poorly planned occupation of Iraq and the slaughter of more than 50,000 civilians killed in the name of finding weapons of mass destruction (or exporting democracy). It stings that Condoleezza Rice is a devout Presbyterian, and the photos of crosses hanging from American tanks and the talk of “crusade” by figures such as Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin are turning stomachs. But rather than call for divestment from American corporations that enabled the U.S. invasion and perpetuate the United States occupation, liberal Protestants end up lashing out at the eternal scapegoat, Israel.As a result, the General Assembly, which openly condemned the preemptive U.S. attack on Iraq, is not investigating U.S.-based companies like Motorola whose technology is used to coordinate artillery strikes, monitor Iraqi villages, and keep millions under restrictive curfews. But it does instruct its committee to search for dirt on U.S. businesses connected to Israel’s security.Such dirt is hard to find, and the initial reports of the Presbyterians’ divestment study committee reflect cautious statements that indicate that divestment is not likely to happen anytime soon. But I imagine that in the coming months the national body of Presbyterians will launch its actions by bringing a resolution against the bulldozer giant Caterpillar. This will trigger hundreds of letters to the PCUSA and to newspaper editors from Jewish leaders explaining that bulldozers are used to uncover tunnels and to remove sniper dens and all the rest. But if you’ve ever heard or seen a D-9, you know it is a monster — the thing can clear a minefield — and photos of the accidental death of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American activist crushed when she chose to protest in front of a D-9 in Gaza, are already on PCUSA’s Web site. So I predict that a symbolic statement will be made by the church and will be celebrated by those who call for an all-out boycott of Israel. And Dennis Prager and Alan Dershowitz will sit down and write fiery op-eds using Holocaust analogies.So what can we, as American Jews, do now?First off, we should not assume that Presbyterian leaders are ignorant on issues relating to Israel. From my perch (which is towered over by Riverside Church’s steeple), I’ve seen that although a number of Presbyterian leaders have simplistic views on the Israel/Palestine issue, many Presbyterian leaders understand very clearly the complexity of Israel’s situation. There are also many Presbyterians who are making efforts to engage with the Jewish community face to face and dialogue on the issue.We should use the energy surrounding the Presbyterian-Jewish controversy as an opportunity to leverage the practical view of both the majority of American Jews and liberal Protestants — that the United States should, through diplomatic means, actively involve both sides in reaching a settlement of the conflict. With upcoming elections in the Palestinian Authority and coming implementation of the Gaza disengagement plan, this is an ideal time for Americans to be discussing how we can capitalize on the efforts begun by Rabin. As I’ve heard a few Israelis say, “There is light at the end of the tunnel, but there is no tunnel!” The Presbyterian divestment action has clearly thrown more dirt in front of that tunnel, but it also may give us a reason to begin digging together. God knows we both would like to see the light. Daniel S. Brenner is director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary, a nearly 200-year-old Presbyterian institution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He lives in Montclair.