Last week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected a resolution calling for divestment from Israel. This was a victory for supporters of Israel - sort of. The resolution was defeated by a single vote, and another resolution endorsing a boycott of West Bank products was adopted. Divestment advocates have vowed to continue their struggle, and they may win next time around.
The Presbyterian Church first raised the divestment from Israel issue in a 2004 resolution. The Jewish community, unanimously opposed to divestment and boycotts, responded to this resolution with anger, and a meeting of Jewish and Presbyterian leaders at Reform movement headquarters quickly became a shouting match. But in an effort to build understanding, we agreed to create a framework for dialogue, and over the next 3 years, heads of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements met regularly with their Presbyterian counterparts, both in New York and at Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville.
These were fascinating, eye-opening meetings, generally friendly in tone even when our differences were sharp. We shared an interest in religious life in America, but Israel was always at the heart of the agenda. We learned as Jews that the Presbyterians were not Israel-haters or anti-Semites. On the other hand, neither could we assume an instinctive sympathy for Israel - or, in a few cases, any sympathy at all. Their concern for Palestinian suffering was deeply felt and frequently expressed.
On the Jewish side, we saw it as our task to create a greater understanding of the Zionist narrative and of the vulnerabilities and fears of Israel’s citizens. The Presbyterians wanted to do the same for the Palestinians. But the framework for our discussions was clear: the Jews supported a two-state solution that would divide the land and provide dignity and security for both peoples, and the Presbyterians - in most instances, it seemed to me - supported this as well.
The most difficult conversations were with those most moderate in their views. They wanted to know why, if Israel were sincerely interested in a peaceful resolution to the conflict, settlement building continued in all parts of the West Bank. These were knowledgeable people; they had facts and figures and they knew what was happening on the ground. They pushed us hard to explain how expanding settlement, even beyond the major settlement blocs, was consistent with a desire for peace.
We noted that there were many reasons to doubt the Palestinian commitment to peace; if they wanted us to take a hard look at the side with which we sympathized, we urged them to do the same. Still, while we made Israel’s case emphatically, their questions on settlement were tough to handle, then and now.
But not everyone in the Presbyterian world was moderate in outlook. And after about 3 years, our conversations petered out, in some measure because statements on matters of theology and politics being prepared elsewhere in the Church were far less reasonable and measured than what we were hearing; we had a sense that one-sided, pro-Palestinian voices were setting the tone in other forums and that our conversations were carrying little weight. As a result, I thought it likely that in the long term, prospects for avoiding a Presbyterian divestment resolution were bleak.
I was reminded of this history by events of the past week.
The failure yet again of the Presbyterian General Assembly to pass a divestment resolution is indicative of the considerable grassroots support for Israel in the church, support that the leadership has often underestimated; it is a tribute as well to the careful, focused, and professional work in the Jewish community, and especially the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, to mobilize sympathy among Presbyterians for Israel’s cause. The victory, as noted, was a partial one, but a victory nonetheless.
At the same time, I was struck by the irony that the Levy Committee, established by the Prime Minister, issued its report only three days after the Presbyterian vote. This report provides a basis for legalizing all currently illegal West Bank settlements and outposts, and it provides as well a legal justification for expanding settlement activity in the future.
I thought back to my conversations with the most moderate, responsible voices in the Presbyterian leadership, and remembered their doubts and concerns about Israel’s settlement policy. Of this I am sure: If the report had been issued a week prior, the Presbyterian divestment resolution would have passed.
Israel should, of course, make decisions based on its interests, and not on the policy preferences of American Presbyterians. But in this case, the two categories happen to coincide. A stunning reversal of previous Israeli government positions on settlement and a challenge to all mainstream readings of international law, the Levy Report, if adopted, would be incomprehensible not only to Presbyterians but to the great majority of Americans. Let’s be thankful that it came out when it did and not before, and let’s hope that the Prime Minister now files it away - and forgets it.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.