The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) was urged to reconsider its decision to “selectively divest” from companies who profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, by an ecumenical group of 14 House of Representative members. The letter came only days before a forthcoming discussion on the topic between Presbyterian and Jewish leaders in New York City, which has been scheduled for Sept 28.
The recent letter adds to the critical and ongoing debate concerning the PCUSA’s “divestment policy” – one which the PCUSA refers to as “perhaps the most critical foreign policy and inter-faith issue on both political and religious agendas.”
The decision to divest was made in a July meeting of the highest assembly within the denomination. During the assembly, a majority of delegates voted for the “divestment policy” as a means to halt the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the construction of the “separation barrier” between the two states. In essence, the PCUSA would “divest” parts of its multi-billion-dollar investment portfolio away from the companies that are helping build the “separation wall” or assisting the Israeli army.
Immediately following the decision, a swarm of political and religious commentators criticized the move as being “one sided” and “short-sighted,” since the policy targets only the Israeli side of the problem.
The congressional letter reflected the oft-expressed view that the policy would cause “terrible distress” in a region already plagued with violence and political sensitivities.
“We believe very strongly that the efforts of the Church to divest from companies doing business in Israel – thus penalizing Israel for acting in its own self-defense – are irresponsible, counterproductive, and morally bankrupt. Rather than contributing to peace, this approach will only provide encouragement for those that seek to de-legitimize the very existence of the Jewish State,” the letter read.
In lieu of the letter, the stated clerk of the PCUSA, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, replied by urging the Congressmen to look toward the failure of its own policies as the reason for “terrible distress.”
In his response, Kirkpatrick explained that the U.S. Congress failed to be a balanced arbiter for peace in the region by refusing to condemn the illegal expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
“It has been very disappointing to us that the U.S. Congress has not proven to be an ally or a balanced arbiter in the negotiations for peace in the region. While Congress has passed repeated statements against the Palestinian Authority, it has never passed a resolution condemning the continuous illegal construction of settlements in the West Bank. There has been nothing done by Congress to pressure Israel to adhere to international law. Rather, Israel has been encouraged by Congress to violate international law. The recent passage of House Resolution 713, which condemns the International Court of Justice and supports a wall that is in blatant violation of international law, is one case in point,” Kirkpatrick wrote.
Regarding the “separation barrier,” the congressmen explained the reasons why such a wall is necessary.
“In condemning the security fence, for extending into the West Bank, the Church ignores U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which explicitly acknowledged Israel’s right to secure and defensible borders, as well as the Church’s stated commitment – reaffirmed in its resolution on the fence – to Israel’s right to exist within “secure” borders. Nearly every blueprint for peace – including the flawed Geneva Accord endorsed by the Church – envisions modifications to the 1967 lines, including the Israeli annexation of large settlement blocs. To argue that Israel somehow forfeits its inherent right of self-defense unless it retreats to those insecure and indefensible borders is a strange reading of history and recent events,” the letter stated.
The letter also argued that the barrier had been successful in stopping Palestinian terrorists from infiltrating Israel from Jenin and Tulkarem, the sources of many previous bombers. A similar fence around Gaza, it argues, has been nearly 100 percent effective in stopping would-be attackers.
To this, Kirkpatrick replied that such a wall would be successful if it were built along the borders established in 1967. Kirkpatrick noted the fact that the borders are being built on disputed land, thus isolating thousands of Palestinians from their society and lives.
“While the Israeli government claims it is building the “separation barrier” between Israel and the West Bank, only a small percent will be on the Green Line, Israel’s 1967 border. The rest stretches into the West Bank, isolates huge amounts of land and affects the lives of many thousands of Palestinians. This year, some 210,000 people will be economically and socially cut off from their neighborhoods. The route of the wall has been determined not by security, but by the political goals of maintaining the settlements and impacting future peace talks. (A wall built along the Green Line would be half the length of the current wall and much easier to patrol.),” he wrote.
Kirkpatrick also noted that the current wall “ghettoizes” Palestinians, forcing them into small “reservation” areas carved out by the Israeli state.
“A just and lasting peace will only be achieved when BOTH people are able to live within secure borders. A wall imposed by Israel on the Palestinians, while maintaining the right to invade at any time, does not advance that goal,” wrote Kirkpatrick.
Meanwhile, in relation to the terrorist actions of Palestinians and their extremist allies, the congressmen said the state of Israel has a “fundamental obligation” to build such bounds. Such walls will provide security for the Israeli people, they wrote, by providing a real physical fence.
“As long as Palestinians and their extremist allies continue to seek the destruction of Israel, then the Government of Israel has a fundamental obligation – as do all democratically elected governments – to provide security for the Israeli people. Unlike the U.N. peacekeeping force advocated by the Church in its divestment resolution, the fence will provide real physical security and – because Israel will have the ability to redeploy its forces from much of the West Bank when it is complete – will help create the conditions necessary for a two state solution in which the legitimate aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians can be satisfied,” they wrote.
Kirkpatrick replied by saying that such actions in fact “does nothing to protect” the security as a nation.
“Kirkpatrick answers: “The unconditional support of Israel and Prime Minister Sharon, while the continuous assaults on Palestinians and their leadership by the Israeli army are broadcast all over the world, does nothing to protect our security as a nation. It also does nothing to bring the security so needed to Israel. It is the occupation, not our move to consider divestment that threatens the existence of Israel,” wrote Kirkpatrick.
“The 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin a process that might lead to divestment from companies profiting from the occupation because there is a strong feeling among many people, and most likely many people in your district, that the occupation needs to end in order that all people – Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans – can live in peace and security,” he added.
In lieu of such differences in opinions, Kirkpatrick invited the 14 signatories to share “dialogue” with the Presbyterian Washington Office within the next few months.
“I am encouraged by your assurance that you seek a peaceful and just solution to the conflict in the Middle East. Since we obviously hope that the other’s institutions (Congress for the Presbyterian General Assembly) might change their actions,” wrote Kirkpatrick.
The signatories to the letter include three of the 52 Presbyterians in the Congress, Reps. Tom Feeney (R-FL), John Lindner (R-GA) and Deborah Pryce (R-OH). There are five Jewish signatories, including Howard Berman (D-CA), Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Eric Cantor (R-VA), Barney Frank (D-MA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA).