“Why are you trying to hurt the state of Israel, Bill? Why are you trying to hurt Jews? I’m outraged. I know exactly what’s in your heart, you [expletive]. You want ‘em all to die in ovens, Bill?”
Such were the messages left by anonymous callers on Bill Somplastsky-Jarman’s answering machines all this month.
Jarman, a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), has been assigned with the task of selecting multinational corporations who do business in Israel to “urge” them to “eliminate practices that undermine peacemaking efforts in the Middle East.”
The method? By “divesting” the denomination’s massive $8 billion investment portfolio from select companies that profit from sales of products or services related to Israel’s 425-mile-long “Separation Barrier”.
The members of the PC(USA), in an apparent attempt to halt the construction of the barrier, made the divestment strategy an official position of the entire 2.4 million-member church, by a 431 to 62 vote.
"We have to send strong messages to such companies," said the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem and an ecumenical guest at the assembly who encouraged the divestment.
"If nothing else seems to have changed the policy of Israel toward Palestinians, we need to send a clear and strong message,” added the Rev. Victor Makari, the PCUSA's liaison to the Middle East.
The divestment strategy strictly selects several companies who “profits most” from constructing the wall or from “destroying Palestinian homes, vineyards and orchards.” The denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) has been charged with the work of establishing the criteria at which to select the corporations and financial institutions that “profit most” by November.
“Presbyterians have historically been concerned about the expansion of settlements — and the effect that has had on the breakdown of the peace process, making it even more difficult to return to the 1967 borders — and the construction of the wall,” said Jarman, a member of the MRTI. “U.S. companies who supply the wherewithal for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to tear down houses — that’s definitely a concern.”
“Most of that revolves around the wall, settlement construction, and military activity that destroys Palestinian homes,” continued Jarman. “ … We have Presbyterian statements that (speak) to the majority of those concerns. We just have to figure out who all is involved in that.”
While the leaders of the PC(USA), including the General Secretary Clifton Kirkpatrick, repeatedly defended the General Assembly’s decision, more conservative Christians and Jews fiercely criticized the move as short-sided and discriminatory.
"It takes a particularly virulent strain of moral idiocy and meanness to single out Israel, not Arafat's Palestinian Authority, or terror-supporting, death-fatwa-issuing Iran, or women-subjugating Saudi Arabia, for condemnation and economic ruin," said Dennis Prager, a Jewish radio talk-show host and syndicated columnist, in a July 20 argument.
Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto, a Ph.D. Lutheran theologian, also criticized the decision, calling it a “blind activist clericalism” that has often failed the church in the past.
“What makes activist church people look so pathetic is that, for all their good intentions, they have an infinite ability to make fools of themselves,” said Netto, who added examples of instances when Christian clerics tried to mangle in politics and utterly failed.
“Since the 16th-century Reformation, church history is littered with catastrophic examples of ministers arrogating upon themselves the right to interfere in the secular realm,” said Netto.
“Is it Christian and theologically acceptable for a church body to meddle in international politics in which clerics have woefully little expertise?” added Netto.
Netto also scoffed Clifton Kirkpatrick’s argument that the “economic pressure” is a “proven tool” to “motivate real change in Israeli policies and movement toward peace,” saying that the true tools for change is faith – something he said the PC(USA) seriously lacked.
“It's not that the PCUSA -- or any church, for that matter -- does not possess the tools to interfere in the Middle East peace process in a valid way. The most legitimate of these tools would be prayer, the Church's first and foremost task. This would require faith, of course; erratic activism doesn't,” said Netto. “Another tool would be the proclamation of the Christian message of forgiveness, which the antagonists in the Holy Land would be well advised to open their ears to. This, too, presupposes the kind of faith that seemed to have been absent at the General Convention in Richmond last week.”
Meanwhile, others have criticized the selective divestment as an act that will alienate Christians from the Jews.
"If there is anything this episode has taught us, especially coupled with Mel Gibson's 'Passion,' it's that we still don't understand each other," said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, interfaith director for the Anti-Defamation League. The Jewish community still doesn't get the Christian world, and the Christian world doesn't get the Jewish community. It remains to be seen whether these actions by Presbyterian Church (USA) will give license to other Protestant communions to pass similar resolutions. We have our work cut out for us."
Rabbi Lester Bronstein of Bet Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains, an officer of the New York Board of Rabbis agreed, saying, "I'm not surprised that the church has these feelings, and I'm totally fine with criticism of Israel, but I can't accept actions that focus only on Israel with no sense of the larger issues in the world. It hurts.”
When questioned why the PC(USA) chooses not to “selectively divest” from Palestine to stop the violence generated by that side of the conflict, PC(USA)’s Jarman said simply: “There isn’t anything there. That’s literally true.”