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Fight to Overturn Divestment Call Can Provide Lessons for Activists

June 26, 2006
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Last week, the 217th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA voted 483-28 to replace its controversial stance on divestment from Israel, adopted two years earlier, with a more balanced, nuanced approach.

They said suicide bombing and terrorist attacks are crimes against humanity. They recognized Israel’s right to defend its pre-1967 boundaries with a security barrier. They even atoned for the pain caused by their actions of two years ago.

The hard work of pro-Israel activists, along with intense conversations within the church, helped turn a corner. The challenge now falls to those who sought changes: We must take heed of the lessons learned so that the corner we turned doesn’t lead back to the same old place.

Here are some of those lessons:

* Strategy matters.

Our approach was strategic. In the end, we knew, this would be a decision Presbyterians must make. We rejected a frontal assault through newspaper ads and editorials, and we didn’t form an alliance of Jews and Presbyterians to take on the church.

Grass-roots dialogue was our approach: We took our case to church leaders in each city and town, trusting that they would continue the conversation within the church. Through the Israel Advocacy Initiative, the United Jewish Communities and Jewish Council for Public Affairs partnered to conduct research, hold regional advocacy training, take missions and provide consulting and program assistance to communities.

* Coordination counts.

The coalition that helped defeat Israel-focused divestment was breathtakingly broad. We started with the religious streams and defense agencies, and eventually more than a dozen national Jewish groups worked together.

Agencies yielded their institutional prerogatives in favor of a unified approach. Jews and Christians; liberals, moderates and conservatives: All worked in unison.

* We share goals.

Ending the threat of Israel-focused divestment was never our final goal. Our goal was, and is, Israeli-Palestinian peace – the same goal as our Protestant partners have – an end to terrorism, two viable states living side-by-side in peace, an end to suffering.

Divestment, we said, was a great distraction, unlikely to affect the parties in the conflict or the companies targeted. Its predominant effect, we explained, is on interfaith relations.

* We have different narratives.

More than just disparate understandings of history, we actually put the cart and the horse in a different order. For pro-Israel advocates, terrorism is the primary obstacle to peace, and Palestinians must dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. To yield to terrorism, especially a bloody campaign aimed at children and families, is to commit national suicide.

For most pro-Palestinian advocates, the occupation is the primary obstacle to peace. An Israeli withdrawal, accompanied by mutual assurances for peace, will end the conflict. The Presbyterian Church USA said in 2004 the occupation is “at the root of the evil acts” committed on both sides.

* Motivations can be quite complex.

A conflict in the Christian church between liberals and conservatives plays a central role in this debate. Evangelicals increasingly embrace Israel and Jews, with Muslims portrayed almost as an anti-Christ. Some liberal Christians view Palestinians as powerless, virtual co-religionists whose plight is paramount.

Pro-Palestinian activists are not automatically anti-Israel; many want the same two-state solution we seek. Many do not see the same complexities in the conflict that we may, sometimes because we have vastly different sources of information. There are, to be certain, those who embrace classical and/or theological anti-Semitism, but that is far from the prevailing view.

* Passivism and power are the elephants in the room.

For many influentials in the church, power is inherently evil and the weak conversely are innocent. “Turning the other cheek,” in their view, leads to peace, and the more powerful party must take the first move.

Israel is viewed as that powerful party, in fact a colony of the world’s only superpower, an America run by evangelical Christians. They see the West Bank security barrier as an offensive and permanent measure.

Terrorism is rejected, but often so is Israel’s obligation to defend itself against terrorism.

Quite dissimilarly, we view Israel as a nation under constant threat, we see terrorism as a weapon of devious power, and we see the security barrier as a defensive and temporary measure.

* Tone and message matter.

Experience has conditioned us to project strength through confrontation. When things get hot, we start talking. This can cause others to stop listening.

Adjusting our tone facilitates dialogue. Silence can signal reflection rather than disagreement. We must give space for legitimate criticism of Israeli practices, just as we criticize some Palestinian actions.

When we talk, we need to lead with our shared goals of peace, rather than making only Israel’s case. We need to understand the depth of Palestinian suffering, express that and commit ourselves to end it. And we must tell others that terrorism is a complete nonstarter for peace.

Notice the order: Peace first.

* Self-resonating messages sometimes fail.

History matters. “Justice,” for us, is doing the right thing, morally and ethically. For others, “justice” often means alleviating the suffering of the weak.

Events from decades ago are important information, but may not instruct why a child goes hungry tonight. If someone were to lecture you about the suffering of Palestinians before acknowledging Israel’s right to exist or their rejection of terrorism, you might stop listening and start reloading. There is no reason to expect that our inclination toward recitation of lessons on history and Palestinian terrorism won’t lead to the same communication failure.

* It’s all about relationships.

At the end of the day, it’s all about whom you know. We have reached out and had difficult conversations, and we were heard.

We can’t stop here. We must continue dialogue, bringing well-qualified speakers to churches, taking balanced missions, engaging person-to-person, listening, learning and always keeping our eyes on the prize – a day when Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side in peace.

[Author Affiliation]

Ethan Felson is assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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