Jewish Journal


December 2, 2004

Israel Can’t Ignore Divestment Threats



American Jewish leaders see it as a dire threat, but in Jerusalem, the current push for divestment by mainline Protestant groups eager to punish the Jewish state is a nonissue -- so much so that at a recent conference, Israel's foreign minister admitted he didn't have a clue about the raging controversy.

Israeli officials may be making a big mistake -- one more complication for Jewish leaders here who see divestment as a full-fledged emergency.

In recent weeks, there has been progress in the anti-divestment battle waged by the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, among others.

The Episcopal Church, while not forsaking divestment, has indicated a willingness to keep talking to Jewish groups. Other churches have reacted cautiously to talk of divestment, and an attempt to get the liberal National Council of Churches to join the campaign was unsuccessful.

But the threat is far from over.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), which ignited the divestment firestorm with a resolution at its convention in July, continues to plan for economic sanctions against companies that "contribute" to Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Other churches still see divestment as one possible remedy for an occupation that they regard as immoral.

The potential economic damage to Israel is a relatively minor threat. Much more ominous is the way the open talk about economic sanctions boosts the notion that there is something fundamentally illegitimate about the Jewish state. At the heart of that threat is the devastating comparison to the apartheid system that once made South Africa a pariah among nations.

These Christians remember that it was strong economic sanctions, pushed aggressively by the churches, that helped bring down a system in South Africa that was almost universally reviled. Other countries suffered worse human rights abuses during the apartheid era, but South Africa stood out, because segregation and inequality were written into law and woven tightly into the culture, and because of its isolation in the world community.

Some Americans on the secular and religious left see Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank through the same lens. They believe Israel's settlements and the tangle of bypass roads and checkpoints point to a permanent system similar to apartheid. And too often, Israeli officials seem to confirm their worst suspicions.

Israel's planned Gaza redeployment is the product of a confluence of factors. But every time an Israeli official suggests the pullout is really intended to solidify Israel's hold on the West Bank, it confirms to many their suspicion that it's merely a ruse to impose a kind of Bantustan system (black enclaves in South Africa that have a limited degree of self-government) on the Palestinian territories.

So, too, does the image of Israel's security fence, which was built to stop terrorism after Palestinian officials recklessly refused to do so. However, it also creates damaging images of Palestinian communities encircled and cut off. Bolstering that connection is renewed talk about Israel's controversial ties to the former South African regime and its role as an arms supplier.

At a time when many Palestinians and their foreign sympathizers are threatening to abandon support for a two-state solution and demand a binational, democratic and non-Jewish state encompassing Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, the apartheid comparison is particularly invidious.

Israeli officials feel that they can ignore the challenge, because their country enjoys such strong support from the current administration and from its Christian right base. They should heed the lesson of the former South African regime, which was certain Ronald Reagan would protect it from the worldwide sanctions push -- an expectation that came crashing down in 1985, when Reagan abruptly changed U.S. policy.

The Bush administration's support for Israel's current government could change as international pressures mount and political realities here shift as the president begins his last term.

The religious right, while still growing in political influence, is far from omnipotent; the mainline Christians represent millions of Americans, many politically influential. And the political influence of the evangelicals could wane, or their support for Israel could be diluted by the internal divisions to which their movement is prone.

Israeli leaders also seem oblivious to the domestic political implications of the divestment crisis.

Groups like the Presbyterians, while persistent critics of Israel, are among the Jewish community's most reliable coalition partners on a wide range of domestic issues, starting with church-state separation and social justice concerns. In contrast, the religious right is a fierce opponent of the American Jewish majority on those same issues.

Israeli officials may dismiss the entire controversy as too trivial for their attention, but Jewish leaders here understand that they have to find some way to correct the terrible bias of the Protestants on Israel without mortally wounding coalitions that Jews need for domestic security interests.

Their job is complicated by Israeli officials, like the top Sharon aide who suggested that the Gaza plan is meant to put broader peace efforts into "formaldehyde."

American Jewish leaders are determined to broaden support for the Jewish state. Israel's right-wing leaders believe their support from the American religious right will protect them from the mainline Christians, not understanding how the former group is a flash point for bitter controversy in this country.

Israeli officials have often misread American domestic political realities. Their indifference to the divestment undercurrent could prove a particularly costly error.


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