A Warning Signal From the Churches

In the eyes of American Jews, the church's new approach is a significant threat both to Israel's status in the United States and to the delicate fabric of relations between organized Judaism and organized Christianity there.

WASHINGTON - At the beginning of last week, Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, held a press conference during the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Cleveland; the audience of journalists was composed mainly of representatives of the Jewish media in the United States. One of the first questions they asked the foreign minister concerned the attitude of the State of Israel toward the decision of the institutions of the Presbyterian church to withdraw some of its investments in Israel because of Jerusalem's policy in the territories. For a moment, Shalom appeared to be confused by the question, but even after his aides had explained the issue to him, he was forced to admit that he is not at all familiar with the matter.

The staff of the Foreign Ministry hastened thereafter to explain that "there was no need to bother the minister about this issue," which, according to a senior Israeli official who deals with the subject, is being handled at lower levels. But the incident itself shed light on substantial differences in approach between the State of Israel and the American Jewish community when it comes to handling the threats of divestment from Israel on the part of the Presbyterian church and other bodies in the United States.

To the organized Jewish community in the United States, this is an important issue. In the eyes of American Jews, the church's new approach is a significant threat both to Israel's status in the United States and to the delicate fabric of relations between organized Judaism and organized Christianity there.

Israel sees things differently. A senior Israeli official who deals with the subject explained last week that the approach of the government was to try to keep the affair out of the headlines as much as possible. The Israeli assumption is that the threats of divestment are only of marginal practical importance, and that the American Jewish community can use its influence to moderate the harsh decisions. In this case, there is no point in providing free advertising for an anti-Israel approach. The burden of the struggle is therefore being borne by American Jews, and they can point for now to a certain degree of success.

After the initial uproar aroused by the decision of the Presbyterian Council, the decision was toned down, and in the final analysis, there will be divestment only from a number of companies or organizations that are directly related to the occupation in the territories. At the same time, there has been a strengthening of pro-Israel groups within the Presbyterian system that are explaining to the U.S. Jews that the decisions of the council do not necessarily reflect the views of the three million Presbyterian believers all over the United States.

The American Jewish organizations managed not only to pave the way for rapprochement with the Presbyterians, they even managed to convince the Episcopalian church to remove a similar decision from the agenda, and also to prevent liberal Protestant denominations from discussing the question of divesting from Israel.

The idea of divestment originated in the struggle of Western human rights organizations against the government of South Africa during the period of apartheid. The success of the organizations in convincing businesses and academic and religious institutions to divest from racist South Africa had a real effect on the country's economy; and in the opinion of those who initiated the struggle, it hastened the end of the apartheid regime.

The idea of using the method in Israel has been popular mainly among pro-Palestinian activists on American campuses since the beginning of the second intifada in October 2000. The effort is directed at institutions with investments in Israel, such as the pension funds of the Presbyterian church, which are worth about $7 billion; part of this sum is invested in Israel bonds. Municipalities, universities and workers' organizations have similar investments.

Supporters of the approach of the Israeli government, which prefers to ignore the issue, can point to the fact that during the four years since the start of the intifada, not a single dollar has been withdrawn from investments in Israel. But the American Jewish community sees a more worrisome picture, of which there are many examples - from annual conventions of students who support divestment, to discussions in the institutions of the Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Anglican churches in the United States, to the bitter battle against Caterpillar, manufacturer of the bulldozers used by the Israel Defense Forces to destroy homes and crops in the territories.

The success of the Jewish community in halting these initiatives for the time being is what enables Israel to treat the question of divestment as a curiosity, or as an internal American issue. But the very fact that discussion of the subject continues, and that the Christian churches belonging to the centrist denominations in the United States are moving away from support for Israel, is a warning signal, not only for the American Jewish community, but for Israeli decision-makers as well.