WASHINGTON -- The movement to divest in firms doing business in Israel is collapsing. Even leftist-governed mainline Protestant denominations are backing away from the idea. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly abandoned its support for anti-Israel divestment this week.
Discredited ideas survive the longest in academia and in liberal church bureaucracies, both of which are ideologically insulated from reality. Anti-Israel activists lost steam on left-wing university campuses several years ago, when charges of anti-Semitism persuaded otherwise politically correct faculty to relent. That left only the declining mainline Protestant denominations as a last recourse.
Influenced by vestiges of liberation theology, the religious left portrays Israel as the Western colonial power and the Palestinians as the Third World oppressed victims. Consequently, the elites of mainline churches focus intensely on human rights abuses by Israeli authorities while mostly ignoring the crimes of Palestinian groups, not to mention the systematic human rights abuses of regimes throughout the Middle East.
It was therefore no surprise when the 3 million member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted in 2004 to divest its assets in firms doing business with Israel. But the action ignited a furor among Jewish groups, many of them politically liberal, and which had not traditionally seen the left-leaning mainline Protestants as adversaries.
With some justification, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) blamed the Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center as the main originator of the churches' anti-Israel divestment campaigns.
"The Sabeel Center has long played a behind-the-scenes role in encouraging churches to adopt divestment as a tool to pressure Israel," explained the ADL's Abraham H. Foxman. "Leaders of the mainline Protestant denominations have routinely welcomed Sabeel leaders as guests at conventions and national meetings, and the influence of Sabeel in advocating for divestment is indisputable, however out of sync their rhetoric is with the people in the pews. Sabeel is the engine that is driving the divestment campaign."
Sabeel hosts regular conferences in the United States, including some this year, which have been co-sponsored by left-leaning church agencies like the World Council of Churches and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, among others.
The ADL and other Jewish groups, such as the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center went into action to overturn the Presbyterian pro-divestment decision and to deter other mainline denominations from following. Last year, the Episcopalians and Evangelical Lutherans decided against divestment. The 1.2 million member United Church of Christ endorsed divestment as a concept but did not divest its own assets. The United Methodist Church's Virginia Conference, the largest regional body of the 8 million member denomination, endorsed divestment. But the denomination as a whole has not.
Among U.S. churches, that left the Presbyterians standing alone on divestment. (The Church of England gustily endorsed divestment but, after realizing the controversy it had generated, declined to divest any of its holdings.) The ADL's Foxman derided the Presbyterian equation of anti-Israel divestment with the divestment 1980's divestment campaign aimed at apartheid South Africa.
"To assert that there is a moral equivalency between the racist policy of apartheid and the efforts to protect the citizenry of Israel is unconscionable," Foxman told the Presbyterians. "To further suggest that the same technique used to break the racist policies of apartheid, that of divestiture, be employed against those doing business with Israel is to support that inaccurate and unjust moral equivalency."
CONSERVATIVE PRESBYTERIANS WERE ALSO troubled by their denomination's actions. At least two dozen local presbyteries passed resolutions urging revocation and amendment of the divestment policy. And anti-divestment Presbyterians invited former CIA director James Woolsey, himself a Presbyterian, to attend the church's General Assembly in Birmingham to speak against church bias aimed at Israel.
Woolsey, who headed CIA from 1993-1995, told a Presbyterian committee that he did not understand "whatever the church thought it was doing two years ago when it opted for effectively choosing the side of the Palestinian Liberation Organization." By backing anti-Israel divestment, "the church is choosing Hamas," a terrorist organization, he complained. "Hamas is now the elected governing body. It is theocratic, totalitarian, anti-Semitic and genocidal. It teaches 5-year-old children to be suicidal bombers. There is nothing remotely close to moderate about it." He contrasted democratic Israel with its neighbors: "Israel has within its borders some one million Arabs, who are the only Arabs in the Mideast who can worship freely."
Passionately echoing Woolsey's complaints was Judea Pearl, father of the murdered Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl. "No one in the Israeli or Palestinian peace camp will be well served by divestment," Pearl told the Presbyterians. "The only ones to gain are the terrorists, who take it as a sign of support."
A coalition of 12 Jewish organizations sent a letter to all Presbyterian members of the General Assembly, warning: "Divestment as a policy focused solely on Israel places you in concert with those who, looking at all the state violence in the world, shamefully paint only Israel as a pariah nation. " The signers, who included the ADL, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and B'nai B'rith International, declared: "Divestment validates and supports Palestinian intransigence by giving hope that, ultimately, the world will allow Israel to be destroyed and Palestinian extremist dreams realized."
UNLIKE MOST OF THEIR FAR LEFT political stances, the Presbyterian stance against Israel has gained reams of publicity, most of it negative over the last two years. In the end, Presbyterian officials were just anxious to shelve the controversy and save their energy for other causes. On June 21, the General Assembly voted 483-28 voted to abandon the divestment policy that exclusively targeted Israel.
In their resolution, the Presbyterians "accept[ed] responsibility" for the "hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion" caused by the divestment resolution. They replaced the support for divestment with new language that benignly pledged investments "only in peaceful pursuits." They even qualified their opposition to Israel's security wall, admitting to the right to protect its borders but complaining about parts of the wall that "illegally encroaches into the Palestinian territory."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Institute responded to the overwhelmingly vote to set aside divestment: "We hope that this will mark a turning point in ending the unjust campaign by churches, academic groups and NGOs to demonize Israel."
Cooper's hope is justified. Divestment against Israel is probably dead as an effective campaign. But the religious left inevitably will look elsewhere for new dragons to slay.