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Is Presbyterian divestment a BDS victory? Who cares

Both BDS supporters and detractors are touting the Presbyterian Church’s divestment vote as a BDS victory. But regardless, isn’t it a step in the direction every anti-occupation person ought to be rooting for?

By A. Daniel Roth

The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA) narrowly (310 to 303) voted late last week to divest some $21 million from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola for profiting by selling goods which are used in the administration of the occupation and the destruction of Palestinian homes and property.

The full text of the divestment resolution can be read here.

Strangely enough, or perhaps quite expectedly, both BDS activists and anti-BDS activists are touting this as a victory for the global boycott movement. The former are doing so with glee, saying that the Presbyterian divestment is a step in the right direction. The latter are shaking their fists with anger saying that people will see this as a BDS victory.

To be clear about the actual intent of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., this is what the resolution says about BDS:

This action on divestment does not mean an alignment with the overall strategy is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.]

Only someone who has refused to read the actual resolution would think this is pro-BDS document.

It very well may be a good step — a major divestment — in the direction that BDS activists want to go, but isn’t it also a step in the direction every anti-occupation person ought to be rooting for? Shouldn’t BDS activists be happy that this is a $21 million blow to the occupation industry at the same time as anti-BDS activists — for example, some outspoken Jewish groups that  say they support a two-state solution – can also be happy that this document says things such as, “the two-state solution remains the best path to sustainable peace”?

Read also: The full BDS debate on +972

Everyone who stands for self-determination should be happy about this motion, which is a non-violent action against corporate entities profiting from the occupation’s perpetuity. After all, the perpetuation of the occupation is a moral and strategic contradiction to the notion — and reality — that all peoples have the right to self-determination.

BDS graffiti on Israeli separation wall, Bethlehem, West Bank, June 17, 2014. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

BDS graffiti on Israeli separation wall, Bethlehem, West Bank, June 17, 2014. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

As usual, the argument that the PC USA ought to focus on bigger human-rights-violating fish such as China or the United States doesn’t hold much water. It wasn’t a sound argument when the boycott movement targeted apartheid in South Africa and it is not a sound argument when faced with the ever-present violence of the occupation. Defenders of U.S. foreign policy, Canadian environmental policy, China’s human rights violations, and Qatar’s labor practices also feel they are unfairly put in the spotlight.

If we are truly against the occupation, no matter our politics, we should be happy there is a chance that the 15 minutes in the limelight presented by the Presbyterian divestment can help shine a light on the “light unto nations” and help us end this injustice so that self-determination for all peoples can prevail. Too much time and energy in progressive circles is exerted on calling people out for calling out Israel. Instead, we should be using that spotlight and that energy to end the occupation as we build a global movement for a just and sustainable world.

A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter @adanielroth 

A previous version of this article mistakenly quoted a passage on BDS from the PCUSA vote’s minority opinion, which was not explicitly approved by the General Assembly. H/t to Joe Catron for pointing out the error.

More on BDS:
What BDS and the Israeli government have in common
Addressing Israel’s addiction to settlements
After Kerry, only BDS may save the two-state solution
Why BDS won’t work, and what can

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    1. Um … no. The passage you quote is from the anti-divestment minority report, which failed.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bar

      “Everyone who stands for self-determination should be happy about this motion,”

      Is this a typo? Did the author mean “”Everyone who stands AGAINST self-determination should be happy about this motion?”

      I ask because this motion is definitely part of a movement to undermine Israel. It is not the only motion passed by the PCUSA and the group of motions taken together with their propaganda film, Zionism Unsettled, indicate that even though they state they support Israel’s existence, their ideas about Israel are that it should not exist as a Jewish state.

      “…which is a non-violent action against corporate entities profiting from the occupation’s perpetuity.”

      The occupation is legal and saves lives.

      The occupation exists because the political solution has been rejected time and again by the Arabs. The Palestinians have been offered a state – effectively ending the occupation – twice officially and once unofficially in the past 14 years.

      “After all, the perpetuation of the occupation is a moral and strategic contradiction to the notion — and reality — that all peoples have the right to self-determination.”

      This is absolutely untrue. Otherwise, Israeli prime ministers wouldn’t have offered peace deals to the Palestinians that give them statehood (the very definition of self-determination) 98% of the land beyond the Green Line, Arab parts of Jerusalem, sovereignty over Arab holy sites (including Christian ones) in one deal or international control of those sites in a different deal plus a reparations fund. In other words, Israel offers permanent peace and enables the right of Palestinians to self-determination regardless (and maybe because it is tired of) occupation.

      As for the lame argument that “we did it to South Africa so it doesn’t matter that we ignore egregious human rights violators around the globe while focusing on a single one,” that’s simply a laughable excuse to get out of the inexcusable. The fact that it is a Christian group doing it to a Jewish state and, in part, using theological arguments to decide on this declaration, only highlights this organization’s moral bankruptcy.

      You should really stop gloating. Only somebody who is entirely ignorant of Jewish history would celebrate this BDS victory.

      Reply to Comment
        • Bar

          Can you find me a list of PCUSA investments? My search is turning up a lot of garbage (read: anti-israel propaganda) about the divestment measure.

          While you find me a list, I’ll just assume that in a diversified portfolio that includes Fortune 500 companies such as Caterpillar and HP, PCUSA is almost certainly also invested in IBM, Google, Oracle and Cisco. All these companies sell massively to China and it is almost certain advanced computer systems aid the Chinese government in implementing its authoritarian policies against their own civilians as well as Tibetans – leading to thousands of deaths every year, thousands of incarcerations on the basis of political speech and a toxic and stifling occupation of Tibet.


          Here is PCUSA’s description of their human rights divestment policy from the document you provided:

          “As human rights issues arise, as in the case of South Africa and apartheid, or the Sudan crisis, the General Assembly may place a company on the divestment and/or proscription list…MRTI is currently working on a phased, selective divestment process related to companies operating in Sudan, and to determine that investments in companies doing business in Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank are only in companies engaged in peaceful pursuits.”

          In other words, on the whole planet – a planet where there are presently 50,000,000 refugees and billions of people living under authoritarian regimes – the only places PCUSA would consider for “human rights” divestment are Sudan and Israel. Can you imagine?

          And just to demonstrate how pernicious this PCUSA boycott of companies associated with Israel is, I’ll just point out that Motorola, Caterpillar and HP also sell to four countries that are currently occupying other countries or territories: Morocco, Turkey, China and Russia.

          Yet, the PCUSA targeted these three companies for divestment for human rights violations that supposedly take place in Israel, not these other occupiers.

          The joke is that while you can unequivocally show human rights violations in those other countries, (or Saudi Arabia, where thieves get their hands chopped off and women may not drive – and to which these three companies sell equipment), Israel has an independent judiciary, a free and open press and a true political democracy that permit challenges to any alleged rights violations. None of the five other countries I’ve listed have these robust systems in place, or if they do, their government suppresses and oppresses these systems and their workers. And yet, PCUSA only targets Israel-related alleged human rights violations (and genocidal Sudan).

          Now, while PCUSA equates genocidal Sudan with Israel, apparently killing thousands of your own citizens for speaking their minds and destroying Tibetan culture and self-determination are not even worth discussing at PCUSA. Destroying Chechniya, jailing political opposition leaders and invading Crimea? Psshhht, that’s nothing. Eliminating half of Cyprus’s citizens’ rights? Don’t bother the PCUSA with trifles. Those aren’t valid reasons for divestment at PCUSA.

          On the other hand, Israel’s arrangement with the Palestinians allows them to govern themselves, asks them to come to negotiations over peace and ensures that any Palestinian newspaper, religious leader, politician or publisher can say or do whatever they want, so this earns PCUSA divestment decisions. Not only is this illogical, as I mentioned in my first comment, it is highly unethical and, considering the history of Christians and Jews, immoral.

          I sincerely hope that deep blush is crawling up your face as you realize what you’re supporting.

          Reply to Comment
          • “Israel’s arrangement with the Palestinians allows them to govern themselves, asks them to come to negotiations over peace and ensures that any Palestinian newspaper, religious leader, politician or publisher can say or do whatever they want”

            What else is different in your alternate universe?

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            Joe, it is very telling that you did not have any response to my remarks about PCUSA and their immoral boycott. Your silence is deafening.

            As for “Israel’s arrangement with the Palestinians,” I am of course referring to the Oslo Accords, as well as to Israel’s unilateral departure from Gaza which permits any Palestinian government that rises there to govern its people. In Judea and Samaria, all the Palestinians who live in Areas A and B live under Palestinian rule – and this represents 96-98% of all Judea and Samaria Palestinians.

            The Palestinians not only govern themselves, their government has been acknowledged by over 120 states at the UN. Their government has ministries just like any normal government, a police force and a military force. While it does not collect its own taxes directly, it manages all Palestinian government income and its spending.

            Regarding negotiations, Israel asked the Palestinian to come to Camp David in 2000, led the way in Taba at the end of 2000, led again in Olmert’s talks in 2008, froze settlements in 2010 in an effort by Netanyahu’s government to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table (they showed up 2 weeks before the talks were supposed to end to demand an extension for the settlement freeze in exchange for coming to the talks, but Israel refuse to play the fool), and in the last round of negotiations, after 3 months and despite Israel having freed dozens of prisoners, the Palestinians refused to continue to negotiate directly with Israel despite Israel’s many requests that they come to the table.

            Regarding freedom of the Palestinian press, authors, politicians and religious leaders to express themselves freely, if this is something of which you’re unaware, then you are truly uninformed. There are dozens of anti-Israel Palestinian NGOs that speak openly and quite negatively about Israel. There are 8 Palestinian universities and professors and students are free to research, teach, study and publish whatever they like (well, unless it’s sympathetic to Jews – the professor who tried to teach about the Holocaust just resigned from Al Quds University because of the treatments he received from colleagues). Likewise with Palestinian newspapers such as Ma’an which attack Israel non-stop in a large portion of their articles. Palestinian politicians and diplomats say whatever they like around the world and certainly in their own areas. The religious leader who runs Al Aqsa Mosque has recently demanded an Arab war against Israel and nothing happened to him.

            Everything I’m describing is in the news, so either you’re feigning ignorance or if you truly are this unaware, perhaps you need to research this conflict some more before writing about it.

            Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            But this happens in Israel:


            Apparently, in Israel one can be criminally investigated for speaking one’s mind.

            Let’s hope this “investigation” turns up some real misdeeds, because I’d hate to think that citizens can be harassed by the police simply because their views are not government-approved.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            There’s a red line with support of terrorism, and even there it’s unlikely anything will happen.

            Zoabi publicly stated that the kidnappers of the teens aren’t terrorists but the IDF’s search for them IS terrorism, and this after a history of active support for Israel’s enemies including being a passenger on the Mavi Marmara. It is astounding and to Israel’s credit that she’s still a member of the Knesset. Can you imagine a sitting Congress member saying that what happened on 9/11 isn’t terrorism but pursuing Bin Laden is?

            Oh wait, do you know why she’s still a member of the Knesset? Because Israel’s High Court ruled that the Knesset couldn’t remove her. As I’ve noted already Israel has a robust democratic political system with strong, independent courts.

            Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            There shouldn’t be any red line to freedom of speech, short of actively inciting to murder. In that sense, Lieberman is much guiltier of incitement than Zoabi since he effectively called for her assassination.

            Freedom of speech should be a pillar of any democracy, which goes to show that Israel is, at best, a democracy for right-wing Jews only.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            Dude, she is speaking openly on radio and TV daily. You are speaking nonsense. Having said that, she should be investigated at this point since she is obviously carrying water for the terrorists. Is her connection any deeper than just being their mouthpiece?

            Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            Dude, you’re carrying water for Netanyahu and his band of criminals (i.e. his government). Maybe you should be investigated too?

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            More nonsense.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            Learn to differentiate between policy and some people violating laws. Your video represents the latter, my comment about Saudi represents their country’s formal policy for which people go to prison.

            Reply to Comment
          • Crusty

            This argument against BDS- that Israel is not the worst of the worst so it should not be boycotted- is of questionable ethics and ridiculous logic. If Stalin killed more people than Hitler should we condemn only Stalin and give Hitler a free pass?

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            On the contrary, it is precisely the shame of this Christian organization that it chooses to target the only Jewish state in the world while ignoring all others (except for genocidal Sudan, which actually proves what I’m saying).

            Regarding the comparison of Israel to either Stalin or Hitler, that only demonstrates the vapidness of your argument.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Pat Nguyen

      As a strong supporter of Israel and her policies, I am at peace that this statement is the result of 10 years of planning and tremendous financial and political capital expenditures by those wrongheaded people who support blaming Israel for the conflict. This divestment is hypocritical, condescending and it made anti-Semites happy. See Mondoweiss for details. However, it is fairy harmless and is more of s last gasp. No international company would qualify for investment based on BDS criteria. It is a fringe group at best

      Reply to Comment
    4. Thanks for the fast correction and clarification. However, while saying the minority report “was not explicitly approved by the General Assembly” may be, in the most technical sense, true, it’s also misleading. It was, in fact, explicitly *rejected,* both in committee (54-46) and by the General Assembly as a whole (316-289).

      Sorry to be a stickler, and I promise you that, as an Anglican, I find Presbyterian polity as confusing as anyone.

      Reply to Comment
    5. David Jankovic

      “As usual, the argument that the PC USA ought to focus on bigger human-rights-violating fish such as China or the United States doesn’t hold much water.”

      A bit more relevant perhaps are the human rights violating regimes (and would be regimes) of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen Gaza and the West Bank.

      It is the obsessive focus on Israel alongside the blindness to atrocities and systemic repression on an altogether larger scale, within neighboring states that make many suspect the true motivation of Christian BDS is ancient bigotry.

      Reply to Comment
        • David Jankovic

          I was just pointing out that by the standards of the region Israel actually ranks very highly wrt human rights and freedoms. So why is it the singular focus of this type of campaign?

          Why are there no campaigns against those who do business with kleptocrats, or murder their own civilians with chemical weapons, or incite violence against minorities, or execute rape victims?

          There is one tiny country in the world that is predominately Jewish and it is singled out for vilification as a human rights abuser, racist state etc. Why should anyone believe this is anything other than anti-Semitism when there are patently far worse examples right next door?

          Reply to Comment
          • Vicky

            A wide range of Palestinian civil society groups specifically issued a call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions in 2005 and this is a response to their specific request. By your logic, no one should have listened to the South African divestment calls either – after all, the Khmer Rouge was worse than the contemporaneous South African apartheid regime, wasn’t it? Also, it’s easy to say that Israel’s record on human rights is relatively good when you’re not one of the people being subjected to military law – if you were a Palestinian who had been imprisoned indefinitely without a charge, let alone a trial, would you be saying to yourself, ‘Well, I’d better not campaign for people to boycott the companies that are profiteering from this prison, because I could be dead in Syria and all in all, being locked up indefinitely isn’t too bad’?

            Most large church organisations have a commitment to maintaining an ethical investment portfolio, in which promotion of Fair Trade and avoidance of the arms trade are usually common themes, and I would be extremely surprised indeed if the PCUSA were found to be investing in companies that supply technology to any other military in the region. You are essentially saying that they must secretly be anti-Semitic because they’re not divesting from institutions they have no investments in.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            Vicki, Presbyterians may be stupid enough to let themselves be handled by Palestinian activists, but here on 972, we are not as stupid.

            We know, for example, that Palestinian “civil society” is completely controlled by the thugs of the two leading parties, Hamas and Fatah. We know that many of the groups listed as “requesting” the boycott aren’t even based in Israel, Judea, Samaria or Gaza. We know that the call to boycott Israel began before there was even an Israel, back in 1930s Mandatory Palestine when the local Arabs were hoping to become part of the greater Syrian state. We know that there were more calls to boycott by all the Arab states after they launched a war which the lost against Israel in 1948. We know that in 2001 at Durban, South Africa, at a very important international gathering on racism, laughably the primary country singled out was Israel even though its minorities are protected to a degree unseen in most of the world, and the various NGOs there developed a strategy to attack Israel economically, which was the real beginning of the modern divestment movement. Finally, we know that the de facto leader of BDS, Omar Barghouti, comes from one of the wealthiest and most important Palestinian families who are, of course, connected to Palestinian elite circles. We also know he earned his advanced degrees in an Israeli university, along the same lines at the head of CodePink, who it has been learned, invests in companies that BDS attempts to boycott.

            Reply to Comment
          • PA police recently beat up and arrested BDS protesters in a Ramallah theatre, so the idea that Fatah and Hamas are somehow orchestrating the BDS call and that the groups that signed up to it have no say in the matter is pretty farcical. Glancing at the list of signatories, I can see many that are in opposition to the PA or Hamas or both, and many that take a strong stance against sectarianism generally. The vast majority of these organisations are based in Palestine, with the exceptions of a couple of refugee groups in Lebanon – and they deserve a voice too because they are affected. Omar Barghouti is not the de facto ‘leader’ of anything; the principal advantage of BDS is that it’s grassroots and doesn’t rely on any one individual, which is why it has been able to spread so successfully. I think he is being politically inconsistent at best in studying at TAU and a hypocrite at worst, and I’m not alone in that, but what I or anybody else thinks about Barghouti’s personal integrity has no bearing on whether or not BDS can be effective as a liberation strategy. Ultimately that is what matters. Equally, you and every other supporter of occupation can tell yourselves that it’s all some grand anti-Semitic ploy, that the Presbyterians have been duped, that they just don’t have the same special knowledge of the situation as you do (South African apartheid supporters made the same argument), that it’s all about you instead of about the rights of people who were colonised and placed under military rule – and that has no bearing on the situation either. The questions are firstly whether BDS can practically help people who are being detained without a trial, experiencing home demolition, and so on; and secondly whether it’s morally wrong to profit from those things. Whether you like it or not, PCUSA hasn’t been the first group to conclude that the answer is ‘yes’ and they won’t be the last – the only question now is what it will achieve.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            Vicky, read the declarations of the Sixth Fatah Congress. It specifically outlines maintaining boycott programs against Israel using the model of South Africa. Sound familiar?

            Reply to Comment
    6. Danny

      BRAVO to PCUSA for having a conscience and not allowing it to be influenced by Israeli and AIPAC propaganda.

      On to the next BDS battle!

      Reply to Comment
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