Investing in Palestinians

May 2, 2012
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A textiles factory in Hebron. Some rights reserved by PalFest.

How can the churches acknowledge the complexity of the political challenges in the Middle East? How can Christians support Palestinian brothers and sisters in faith who are caught in that complexity and have endured four decades of Israeli occupation and restricted human rights? And how do we respond in a way that actually helps Israelis and Palestinians move toward peace and mutual security?

One response is the so-called BDS movement, which has proposed boycotts, divestment and sanctions from corporations that do business with Israel and are deemed harmful to the prospects for peace and harmful to Palestinians and which has publicly condemned Israel as an “apartheid” state.

In this issue ("Investment, not divestment"), Thomas A. Prinz and Karl-John N. Stone argue for an alternate response—positive investment in the Palestinian economy. In 2010, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argued that a viable Palestinian state (which a majority of Israelis support) must have strong Palestinian institutions and businesses and that the best way to further that goal is to invest in those institutions and businesses. He commended Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank economist who has “unleashed the real Palestinian revolution” with his efforts to build a viable economy and market.

Although I have friends who are committed to the BDS movement, I find it difficult to agree with them. I am fairly certain that the decision of an American denomination to divest has no effect on Israeli policy and no effect on the corporations involved. BDS adds to Israel’s sense of isolation and perplexes and angers American Jews.

A rabbi who is a vocal critic of the current Israeli government and a strong advocate for Palestinians’ rights made this point to me: “When you Christians start talking about divesting from Israel, it sounds to us as if you are undermining Israel’s economy and thus Israel’s existence. We close ranks, and even progressive, sympathetic Jews become adamant Zionists.”

In a controversial new book, The Crisis in Zionism, Peter Beinart laments the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, the failure to establish an independent Palestinian state, and the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in land needed for such a state. The situation is not only immoral and unjust, says Beinart, but seriously compromises and endangers core Israeli values of democracy and human rights. Yet Beinart also argues that comparing the BDS effort to the “global antiapartheid struggle sends the message that just as the apartheid state in South Africa was dismantled, so must the Jewish state be dismantled today.” Beinart proposes instead a boycott of illegal settlements and the goods they produce.

Beinart’s book will make many American Jews and Christians uncomfortable—the New York Times reviewer said it is filled with “Manichaean simplicities”—but as Bill Clinton wrote, “Beinart raises the tough questions that can’t be avoided, and offers a new way forward to achieve Zionism’s founding ideals.”

I’m hoping for positive investment in Palestine by denominations, congregations and individuals, Christian and Jewish. I’m hoping for one thing more: that every Christian congregation will sit down with a neighboring synagogue to talk about what is happening in Israel/Palestine and why each of us cares about it.


Investing in Palestinians

The ways in which we respond to the on-going conflict in Palestine and Israel will be a big issue at the coming assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  John Buchanan, and the supporting article by Prinz and Stone, have suggested that the best way to do that is by investing in Palestine.

Fundamental to the way Presbyterians "do mission" is that we work in partnership, paying particular attention to what our partners tell us are their priorities, as we set our own mission goals.  To do otherwise is either to live in a colonialist mentality, saying that we know better than they what is best for them; or to say that we have other priorities which over-ride theirs.

Building on more than 100 years of mission work, our partners in the Holy Land are the Christian churches there.  In 2004, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church affirmed an intention to engage in a process of "Development and Compassionate Action in Palestine."  That led to extensive conversations with our partners, to ask for their guidance.  Positive investment was never near the top of their list, in any of those discussions. 

More recently, our Palestinian partners have come together to formulate their priorities.  Their document, Kairos Palestine, is a plea for help, sent out to Christian sisters and brothers around the world.  It provides a theological framework, firmly rooted in non-violence, to confront their situation.  Noone can claim that positive investment is by itself an appropriate response to that plea.

One of several responses they ask for is Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.  That can be a blunt instrument, or a nuaced and focused one.  That fact complicates discussions of BDS, makiing it easy to reject the whole approach.  Prinz and Stone's article reflects that weakness, as they frame their discussion in terms of "divestment from Israel," which they say is "focused on tearing down and punishing one side in a complex conflict."  But "divestment from Israel" has never been a focus of Presbyterian actions; none of the overtures to be considered by this year's assembly take that approach.  The goal is always more targeted, aimed at changing the policies of American companies earning profits from their engagement in implementing and enforcing the occupation of Palestinian land on the West Bank. 

Investing in Palestine while ignoring their cries for help in other dimensions may make us feel good; it may be an easier thing for us to do, answering other demands being placed on us in the American context.  But noone who has listened to the voice of the Christian community in Palestine can say this is an adequate response to their clearly articulated needs.  True and faithful partnership requires a broader response which surely can include investing in Palestinians, but must go far beyond that to confront the on-going and expanding occupation of their land, which makes a farce of the idea that investment by itself will be an adequate response.  Faithfully responding to Christ's call requires us to do more than that.