Palestine-Israel: Is dialogue more important than justice?

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA) General Assembly this week deliberates several resolutions that, if passed, promise to dramatically reframe the discourse on the Palestine-Israel conflict within the United States.

One of the resolutions at stake recommends divesting church funds from three U.S. companies – Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions – that are “profiting from non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine,” as the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) puts it.

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Enormous pressure has been brought to bear both within and outside the PCUSA for the Presbyterians to back away from divestment even though the decision to divest is entirely grounded in PCUSA policy. In this ongoing battle over divestment there are those offering alternatives that would actually exacerbate the problem.

Take, for example, The Christian Century’s John Buchanan in his “Can we talk about Israel?”  He argued against boycotts and divestment directed at Israel on the grounds that this would anger and alienate the American Jewish community and damage interfaith relations. Instead, he calls for “financial investment in the Palestinian economy” as a “positive, practical and hopeful gesture.”

Mr. Buchanan touches upon interfaith relations, which for many translates as Christian-Jewish dialogue. Sadly, however, this dialogue has often been used to silence the courageous voices of those critical of Israeli practices and has served to paralyze some churches into inaction. 

As a Palestinian and as a Christian, I see dialogue in its present form and practice as sacrificing Palestinians’ right to justice in order to accommodate the discomfort of those unwilling to criticize Israel’s ill-advised policies. In other words, dialogue has become more important than justice, much as the peace process became more about process than about peace.

Buchanan’s statements are emblematic of the arguments against boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS): they are superficial, incorrect, and trivialize the Palestinian experience. Congress should take note because U.S. policy has been in large part responsible for the failure of the peace process to date, leaving millions of Palestinians deprived of the most basic rights. Congressional leaders overlook three reasons why BDS offers the best path to justice.

First, the BDS movement is not directed at the American Jewish community but at the state of Israel’s deplorable treatment of Palestinians living under its military occupation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since 1967, where it has violated international law in myriad ways, as well as its denial of other Palestinian rights.  BDS is a non-violent response by many communities, including people of faith, who believe that it is past time to do more to secure Palestinian freedom and human rights.  

Second, the American Jewish community is not a monolithic entity. The deep fissures within the Jewish community were recently examined in the Washington Post.  Many American Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, wholeheartedly support boycotts and divestment as an effective way to achieve human rights for all. 

Third, the call for positive investment is a red herring – the most egregious example of anti-BDS arguments within the church.  Palestinian businessmen have on many occasions discounted the value of investment to fundamentally improve the Palestinian situation.  They affirm that the Israeli occupation and its matrix of control are the problem, not the lack of investment.  

Members of the Palestinian business community have personally contacted the PCUSA General Assembly commissioners to outline the constraints they face, including, but not limited to, Israeli prohibitions on investing in and/or developing Area C (60 percent of the West Bank), restrictions on movement of goods and people, restrictions on communications infrastructure, and restrictions on cash transfers. None of this is or can be addressed by US or other international aid.  

If the Presbyterian General Assembly resolution passes this month, we will have moved a step further in the dramatic reframing of the discourse on the Palestine-Israel conflict within the United States.  The implications are tremendous: Other churches that are working on divestment will be encouraged to press on.  Universities whose students have courageously presented divestment proposals for university funds will likewise be encouraged. 

Congress, of course, will be last to get the message.  It will fight such an outcome tooth and nail at the behest of an Israel lobby that denigrates equal rights for Palestinians and backs an Israeli prime minister who is perfectly content the peace process is over and that he has a clear path to expanding illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

For me, perhaps most important of all will be the affirmation of the notion that we all have the power to say what must be said about Palestinian freedom from Israeli subjugation: that enough is enough and that people can successfully act where their governments have failed.

Said is a co-founder of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, and a founding member of Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace, a Washington D.C.-based organization that supports faith-based initiatives on Palestine. 

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