The Common Good
August 2005

Is Divestment Anti-Semitic?

by Ham Dov Beliak | August 2005

Constructive engagement must ensure safety for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The current discussion on divestment as it relates to the Middle East casts a new light on persistent themes in Christian-

The current discussion on divestment as it relates to the Middle East casts a new light on persistent themes in Christian-Jewish relations. We are on relatively new ground when we try to analyze the many peaceful options for pressing Israel to end the occupation - including constructive engagement, divestment, criticizing the positions taken by Jews and Israelis over the 38-year long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, or querying the policies of the State of Israel.

I believe that most Christians are seeking a moral response to the occupation, looking for constructive engagement to end the statelessness of Palestinians by ensuring safety for both Israelis and Palestinians, most pragmatically by a two-state solution.

Many liberal and progressive Christians are stung by the lack of basic trust expressed by the organized Jewish community toward Presbyterians and other religious groups seeking a moral response to the occupation (see "Should Churches Divest?" page 22). Jewish organizations and many rank-and-file Jews assume that the mantle of the primary victimhood remains with and belongs to Jews/Israelis. There is very little comprehension of the Palestinians - their plight or their rights. Jews need to consider: Who will speak up on behalf of Christian Palestinians if not their co-religionists around the world? Who will speak up for Muslim Palestinians?

Jews who seek the welfare of both Israelis and Palestinians should encourage creative engagement, including phased selective divestments highlighting the moral corruption at the heart of the occupation. The recent shareholder resolution calling on Caterpillar to investigate how its bulldozers are used in Israel and Palestine illustrates a positive strategic and moral use of this tactic to call attention to a wrong - the occupation. The resolution reminded Caterpillar of its responsibility as a corporate citizen. Do actions like this matter? Are they effective? My answer is yes.

In contrast, the British Association of University Teachers recently took action - later rescinded - to boycott Israeli universities in response to the branch of Bar-Ilan University that Israel set up in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. I believe the boycott was counterproductive. Much of the internal opposition to the occupation comes from the Israeli universities (albeit not Bar-Ilan); I believe they should be encouraged, not boycotted.

What has changed? Many previous generations of Christians regarded the accusation of anti-Semite as a badge of honor. Historically, the few Christians who disavowed anti-Semitism did so for tactical reasons, mainly hoping to encourage Jews to commit apostasy against the faith of their ancestors. Sadly, if you were an anti-Semite, that often proved your genuineness as a Christian. Jews still remember those days.

Remembering that context helps us to understand the courage shown by the Presbyterians and others who have dared to publicly state the obvious - that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is based on "oppression and injustice." Those are the words of Avrum Burg, speaker of the Israeli Knesset from 1999 to 2003, who said of the occupation, "A structure built on human callousness will inevitably collapse in on itself." Burg is an orthodox Jew who knows that, even while operating in a secular parliament, the choice is between owning holy real estate and becoming a holy people.

Until recently, Presbyterians and others muted their voices when expressing concern for Palestinians and especially the Christian Palestinian community. The lack of dialogue over the Middle East never worried American Jews and Israelis until recently. The shrill, over-the-top rhetoric from the official Jewish community misrepresents the Presbyterian stance. The tacit agreement between American Jews and Christians to ignore the Middle East is now breached.

Jews must not automatically assume the ill will of Christians seeking to make known their moral position. The treatment of the Palestinian minority in Israel and the Palestinians - Christian and Muslim - under occupation is a matter of justice that will influence how Jews fare in their various diasporas. It is important that Jews care about the future of Palestinians, too.

Haim Dov Beliak was rabbi of Beth Shalom of Whittier, California, and executive director of HaMifgash: An On-Going Conversation Among Jewish Intellectuals, when this article appeared.

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