After Presbyterian Win, BDS Advocates Trumpet Divestment as Path to Two States

With Peace Talks Dead, Boycott Pressure Gains Allure

Presbyterian Protest: Demonstrators calling for action against Israel confront Rabbi Rick Jacobs at the Presbyterian Church’s recent convention.
Presbyterian Protest: Demonstrators calling for action against Israel confront Rabbi Rick Jacobs at the Presbyterian Church’s recent convention.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 24, 2014.

Advocates for Israel may be confronting a new kind of boycott, divestment and sanctions push.

But the effort to frame the pressure tactic into a weapon for attaining a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians is being rejected by most Israel defenders as a distinction without a difference.

The June 21 vote by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to sell off its stock in three American companies seen as bolstering Israel’s occupation of the West Bank marked more than a new level of success for those advocating economic gestures to pressure Israel politically. The measure succeeded in gaining approval from the large mainline denomination in part by reframing the very nature and purpose of the divestment tactic.

For years, divestment has been wielded as a cudgel by those whom Israel’s supporters view as opponents of the very existence of a Jewish state. But the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel — or BDS, as it is known — got short shrift in the language ultimately passed at the Presbyterians’ June 21 gathering in Detroit. The church’s resolution instead explicitly reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a two-state solution to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and disavowed any “alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS movement.”

That movement, composed of pro-Palestinian activists, supports a 2005 manifesto issued by a coalition of civil society groups in the West Bank and in Gaza calling for BDS of Israel worldwide. The manifesto’s demands include recognition of “the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194” — an action that Israel and its supporters say would effectively mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

The Palestinian refugee population, which includes those expelled by Israel or those who fled during the 1948 war that established the state, plus many of their descendants, is now estimated at almost 5 million.

Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, strongly rejected the notion that the Presbyterians’ efforts to distance themselves from this movement meant anything.

“It’s just not possible at this moment and in this climate to be able to, in a sense, reinvent this as a new strategy,” argued Jacobs. The Reform leader, whose own movement officially supports a two-state solution and opposes Israel’s policy of establishing Jewish settlements on the West Bank, denounced the idea of a “kinder, gentler form of BDS” as “false.”

Jacobs heads American Judaism’s largest religious stream and spoke for pretty much the full spectrum of organized Jewry’s mainstream in voicing this view.

But the consensus could be starting to erode. Americans for Peace Now, while not welcoming divestment, expressed understanding of the Presbyterian Church’s move as “explicitly and emphatically grounded in commitment to and concern for Israel.”

“Anti-Israel forces were quick to claim PC (USA)’s decision, passed by a very narrow margin, as a victory for their odious cause, but that does not make it so,” APN averred in a statement.

Outside the mainstream tent, some Jews see the new approach at the Presbyterian convention as one that could be used elsewhere with similar success.

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