Why did progressive U.S. Jewish groups oppose divestment?

Despite having an explicit anti-settlement position, J Street and Americans for Peace Now actively opposed the Presbyterian Church’s efforts to divest from companies that profit from the occupation. By doing so, they are standing in the way of the Palestinian stride for freedom.

By Naftali Kaminski and Michael Zigmond

Undoubtedly, when Peter Beinart wrote his groundbreaking essay in 2010, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” he did not foresee the events around this year’s 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), but his analysis was proven right again.  For months the entire Jewish establishment, both nationally and here in Pittsburgh, shifted their attention from the real concerns of American Jews  and dedicated itself to a topic  most American Jews were not even aware of – how to prevent the Presbyterians from following their ethical principles when making financial decisions.

The issue of divestment was first raised by the Presbyterian Church in 2004, and at this year’s assembly, two resolutions on this matter were put up for a vote: the boycott of products produced in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the divestment from corporations whose products are used in the ongoing maintenance of occupation.

Despite the campaign against divestment, virtually nobody at the General Assembly of PCUSA suggested that the occupation was justified or that Israeli settlements were not an obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the end, the General Assembly approved a call to boycott products such as the popular Ahava cosmetics and a resolution to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions was defeated by only 2 votes out of 664 through a parliamentary motion that prevented a vote on the divestment proposal itself. Importantly, a resolution to create a personal divestment option for pension holders (reversed on a procedural technicality), received significant majority support suggesting that Church-wide divestment is likely to happen in the future, if there is no end to the occupation, perhaps as soon the next General Assembly in 2014.

While the knee-jerk opposition to the Presbyterian resolutions and the usual kitchen sink assembly of implications of anti-Semitisms, recollection of Jewish suffering across the centuries, and a hint that these resolutions would support terrorism was predictable, what was new was the positioning of groups considered progressive or moderate at the forefront of the Jewish establishment campaign. In Pittsburgh, a local newspaper highlighted the role of “progressive” groups such as the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee and the local chapter of J Street in the opposition to the PCUSA resolutions. James Gibson, a Rabbi respected here for his progressive leadership, moderate views on Israel-Palestine and interfaith work, called on the Presbyterians not to “disinherit Israel.

And on the national level, one may argue that, despite the heavy-handed campaigning by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the groups that actually prevented approval of the divestment resolution were two prominent “pro-Israel, pro-peace” groups, J Street and Americans for Peace Now  (APN) who instead of simply pointing out that they did not support targeted divestment and/or boycott, actively called on Presbyterian to reject the measures. Their opposition was particularly influential because, unlike the other anti-divestment lobbyists, both groups are known to be vociferous critics of the settlements.

In what may be a telling analogy, much of the moderate Jewish establishment public pronouncements in Pittsburgh in 2012 bore an eerie resemblance to those of white ‘moderates’ in Alabama in 1963. In that year, eight white clergymen issued a public statement titled A Call for Unity in which they claimed nonviolent civil disobedience to segregation was “unwise and untimely” and suggested it would “incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be.” They acknowledged the “natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized,” but insisted that the only way forward “should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations” and “not in the streets.”

As if inspired 49 years later by this letter, J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami, in an essay published just before the Presbyterian divestment vote, stated with regard to the Palestinian-led nonviolent resistance movement that “pursuit of these tactics has promoted little more than debate and division,” and that despite the fact that “frustration is rising over diplomatic stagnation,” the only way forward is through a full-on pursuit of diplomatic efforts.  Yet, during 20 years of diplomatic efforts the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories has nearly doubled – and has risen 18 percent during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s three-plus years in office – and the Palestinians are still under Israeli control and no closer to an independent state that they were when talks began in fall 1991.  It may be argued that J Street’s position is a logical extension of its position as a lobbying group seeking to impact lawmakers and a direct continuation of its realignment with Jewish Establishment policies as was evidenced by its support of a US veto on the Palestinian UN bid and the recent dismissal of the call by Peter Beinart, earlier celebrated as J Street’s Troubadour, for a boycott of settlement products.

More striking was the response by Americans for Peace Now (APN), a group admired by many for its consistent anti-occupation stance and its support of boycotting goods made in illegal Israeli settlements. Widely misrepresenting the carefully crafted Presbyterian position which only focused on three companies profiting from the suppression of Palestinian human rights in the occupied territories, the APN President Debra DeLee, said that the proposal targeted “Israel rather than the occupation” and raised worries of “global anti-Semitism.”  Oddly, in her rush to vilify the Presbyterian deliberations, she neglected to mention that the Presbyterians’ overture to boycott products made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank perfectly echoed APN positions.  In fact, her complete disregard for the actual text of the Presbyterian resolutions was disturbing, because it suggested a deep paternalistic attitude:  As if Palestinians or their Presbyterian supporters had no say in the design of their nonviolent resistance strategy, as if they needed to defer to Ms. Delee for approval.  Not unlike the moderate preachers in Alabama, She and APN seemingly consider Palestinian nonviolent resistance a distraction.

In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. responded to the white moderate preachers with his now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.

The Palestinians who have been living under a brutal occupation for 45 years, and who have only seen a deterioration of their conditions under negotiations, and are now asking for international support for a nonviolent strategy to finally change the status quo, must feel the same way –  that moderate Jewish groups like J Street and APN have become the  “largest stumbling block” in their stride for freedom and independent statehood.  In their vocal opposition to the Presbyterian limited divestment and settlement boycott resolutions, J Street and APN challenged the legitimacy of Palestinian nonviolent resistance, an attitude reminiscent of the white moderate preachers who preached patience and obedience to the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. The white moderate preachers ended up on the wrong side of history.  Where will J Street and Americans for Peace Now end up?


Michael Zigmond is an American scientist and long-time member of the Pittsburgh Jewish community with strong ties to Israel. Naftali Kaminski is an Israeli Physician-Scientist now living in Pittsburgh. Both were past supporters of J Street and contributors to APN and are members of the Middle East Peace Forum of Pittsburgh.They blogged their impressions from the boycott and divestment deliberations at the Presbyterian General Assembly  at the Pittsburgh Middle-East Peace Blog at www.pittmep.com.