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It's not about Israel, it's about freedom

| Saturday, June 30, 2012, 9:00 p.m.
Paresh Nath | Caglecartoons.com

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is holding its General Assembly in Pittsburgh this Independence Day week. Recently, 700 Presbyterian commissioners received an open letter from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, signed by 15,000 people, asking them to reject the divestment of stock from three American companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

Yet the letter does not say a word about the principal Presbyterian concern: Israel's military occupation and confiscation of Palestinian land.

The letter argues that divestment would somehow “justify the violence perpetrated against Israeli civilians ­— including children.”

It does no such thing. We find such violence abhorrent. And the threat of undoing Jewish-Christian relations is intended to make us shrink from principled support for Palestinian rights in the face of decades of Israeli oppression.

We will not.

The three companies targeted by the Presbyterian divestment proposal provide strategic assistance to the occupation and profit from it. Caterpillar bulldozers demolish homes, uproot olive trees and build settlements and the Wall.

Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions provide surveillance and biometric scanning equipment to control Christians and Muslims in the occupied territories.

Recently, Caterpillar was downgraded by the responsible investment MSCI Inc. index, which noted the “use of the company's equipment in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Consequently, the mutual fund behemoth TIAA-CREF removed nearly $73 million in Caterpillar shares from its “Social Choice” Fund.

The letter ignores the powerlessness of the Palestinians, relying instead on a narrative of permanent Jewish victimization. For centuries the oppression of Jews was a reality in Europe. But today in Israel and the Palestinian territories it is not.

Writes Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, who refused to sign a similar rabbis' letter:

“Most Jews and Christians are not willing to go to Palestine to personally resist Israeli policies of land confiscation, home demolition, destruction of trees and property, military invasion, denial of freedom of movement, administrative detention or the arrest of children through nonviolent protest.”

She understands the point of the divestment effort: Charity and more dialogue are not going to produce justice in a situation where one side wields overwhelming military power and economic control.

Many Presbyterians have witnessed this power imbalance and the injustice Palestinians endure; too many American Jews prefer to look the other way and carve out increasingly out-of-touch rationalizations for Israeli human rights violations.

Certainly, as Calvinists we believe no side is innocent. But we also try to be realistic about why peace negotiations have failed. The letter to the Presbyterian commissioners ignores the fact that more than 500,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are living on land that, according to international law, has been illegally confiscated.

And “positive investment” in Palestine, sometimes proposed instead of divestment, only shores up the occupation itself. Investing in the status quo, with its restrictions on movement, land rights, access to water and electricity, and its walled-off, isolated enclaves across the West Bank will only perpetuate the occupation.

The Presbyterian church has taken up divestment as a last resort after years of fruitless protests against the occupation addressed to the Israeli government and to our country's own political leaders. Divestment is not a form of violence; it is a nonviolent means of effecting long-overdue change.

Many Presbyterians believe divestment can be the first step toward ending 45 years of occupation and advancing the goal of a two-state solution. It signals our refusal to put our church's funds in companies that profit from human rights abuses and our commitment to securing freedom for an indigenous people.

The situation on the ground is harmful to Palestinians and Jews alike and requires resolute, nonviolent action rather than hand-wringing and platitudes.

We urge our Jewish brothers and sisters in so many battles for civil and human rights to see the occupation for themselves and get on the right side of history.

Leila Richards is a member of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. She served as a physician at the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza from 1988-89 and as a volunteer with the World Council of Churches in the West Bank in 2004.

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