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On divestment

There's been a great deal of conversation in the American Jewish community about divestment resolutions the United Methodist Church has recently pondered and the Presbyterian Church will soon be pondering. These resolutions would lead each church to divest their funds from three companies -- Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar -- which profit from Israel's policies in Gaza and the West Bank. (For more: Understanding United Methodist Divestment and Presbyterian investment committee recommends divestment.)

Some two dozen rabbis and Jewish clergy signed a letter in support of these Christian churches' consideration of divestment from Caterpillar et al. Here's an excerpt from that letter:

To advocate for an end to an unjust policy is not anti-Semitic. To criticize Israel is not anti-Semitic. To invest your own resources in corporations which pursue your vision of a just and peaceful world, and to withdraw your resources from those which contradict this vision, is not anti-Semitic. There is a terrible history of actual anti-Semitism perpetrated by Christians at different times throughout the millennia and conscientious Christians today do bear a burden of conscience on that account. We can understand that, with your commitment to paths of peace and justice, it must be terribly painful and inhibiting to be accused of anti-Semitism.

In fact, many of us in the Jewish community recognize that the continuing occupation of Palestine itself presents a great danger to the safety of the Jewish people, not to mention oppressing our spirits and diminishing our honor in the world community.

You can read the whole letter at www.RabbisLetter.org.

Meanwhile, some 1200 rabbis have signed a letter decrying the proposed divestment. I've been able to dig up a JTA news story about the 1200 rabbis signing the anti-divestment letter, but haven't been able to find the letter itself online -- if anyone out there has a link to the actual letter, please let me know.

All of this has piqued the attention of Bishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote a powerful (and saddening) op-ed called Justice requires action to stop subjugation of Palestinians. In responding to the 1200 rabbis who signed the letter opposing this divestment, he writes:

I recall well the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in which he confesses to his "Christian and Jewish brothers" that he has been "gravely disappointed with 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."

He adds a further caution:

If we do not achieve two states in the near future, then the day will certainly arrive when Palestinians move away from seeking a separate state of their own and insist on the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, the Israeli government, in a single, democratic state. Israel finds this option unacceptable and yet is seemingly doing everything in its power to see that it happens...

I understand why many American Jews respond to any talk of BDS (boycott, divestment, and/or sanctions) with instinctive rejection. But these resolutions don't suggest divesting from Israel or from Israeli businesses. The question is one of continuing to invest in major corporations -- Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, and Caterpillar -- whose products are used to create and sustain injustice. That's not a threat to Israel or to Jewish life. Beyond that, I would posit that all of us who are fortunate enough to have investments should strive to be mindful of the implications of where we choose to put our money.

I don't know how much money these churches have invested in these corporations. I suspect that one way or another, this isn't going to make or break Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, or Caterpillar! The divestment would be a symbolic gesture more than a fiscally meaningful one. But we who have chosen to dedicate our lives to serving God and our religious communities tend to be pretty passionate about the value and meaning of "mere" symbols.

In this week's Torah portion we read "Do not profit by the blood of your fellow" (Lev. 19:16) -- often understood to mean "do not pursue your livelihood in a way which endangers another." Reading this verse this week, as this conversation has unfolded, it strikes me that the verse could also be understood to be an injunction against passively permitting one's investments to cause or further bloodshed. I tip my kippah to the clergy and laypeople in these churches who are wrestling with the implications of who profits from their investments.

As it happens, the Methodist church voted this week to pass a different resolution, one which calls instead for positive investment in Palestinian economies rather than divestment from these corporations. (See the New York Times: Methodists Vote Against Ending Investments Tied to Israel.) I think it's arguable that positive investment, however well-intended, may not go far if the bigger picture of the occupation isn't addressed. But I'm glad to see these issues being discussed by some of my Christian colleagues and friends.


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