Symbolism Counts. Perception Matters: Different lenses underlying divestment and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

In the days following the 221st General Assembly’s vote to divest from three corporations – Caterpillar, Motorola, and HP, over the Israeli government’s use of their products to violent ends in the Palestinian conflict,  I still am trying to make sense of this. I have never seen an issue that divides people who are usually on the same side of every political issue, but instead polarizes and separates allies.  It does not break down in predictable ways. I am on the anti-divestment side.  I simply do not believe that divesting of 17 million dollars of PCUSA pension funds will have any meaningful impact to help Palestinians, and I do not think that it will do anything to promote a two state solution. I view the issue as one which has much risk and potential to damage our role as legitimate peacemakers.  Many of my friends are on the other side. I view the issue through this lens.  It shapes how I perceive the issue.  Others see it in a different way.  Perception matters. 
Not only does perception matter, frames the entire discussion.   Some of the proponents of divestment see the issue as entirely being driven by keeping our investments compatible with the Church’s ethics policies.  We cannot profit from violence.   Through that lens, Caterpillar appears culpable.  Its bulldozers are used by Israeli’s to destroy Palestinian homes in the West Bank.  It does not matter that the “weaponizing” of these bulldozers is done by an Israeli company; nor does it matter that CAT has a dealership on the West Bank.  Through the lens of Palestinian suffering, CAT is culpable.   They believe this wholeheartedly, and truly care about improving the fate of Palestinians. 

But there are other perspectives that are blurred through that lens.  One of which is the damage and pain that ten years of seeking divestment from Caterpillar has caused to the Presbytery of Great Rivers in Central Illinois, and the churches in the communities where thousands of people are gainfully employed by CAT, and view it as a company that does much good.  When a F-4 Tornado struck Washington, IL on November 17, 2013,  Caterpillar came through providing support, funds, and even gave the mayor of Washington, a CAT employee, a paid leave of absence to take care of his town.  This is the same company that sells bulldozers to Israel, and all over the world.  Bulldozers and cranes — not mortar rounds, not heavy armament, but bulldozers. Perception matters.   
The feelings of those who are faithful members of Presbyterian churches in Peoria, Washington, Morton, and other communities throughout Central Illinois are also lost by the divestment lens.  “Our church is saying that we work for a company that is morally wrong?”  Over the years, at least one congregation has left over the continued threat of divestment.   With the actual vote, it is possible that others might leave.  I pray that does not happen.  But the local perspective is not seen through the divestment lens.  This became crystal clear to me when I was sitting in the Detroit airport waiting for a flight to Peoria on Saturday, and I saw a family coming back from a vacation, and the man was wearing a CAT hat.   We talked.  He asked what happened. I told him.  He shrugged saying “I respect what your church feels compelled to do, but we really don’t have a horse in that race.”   Later, the first thing I saw when arriving in Peoria, was a display with an old CAT bulldozer.   Peoria is proud to call Caterpillar home.  Perception matters.  

There is another lens – that of interfaith relations – that also loses focus when viewed through that of divestment.  To the vast majority of American Jews, the call for divestment from these companies is viewed as alignment with the global BDS – Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement — which challenges a Two State solution, and questions Israel’s very right to exist.  Proponents of divestment amended the resolution to include a statement that the church was not divesting from Israel, and was not joining BDS, but within minutes of the vote, the New York Times reported that “Presbyterians, Debating Israeli Occupation, Vote to Divest Holdings,” and in the second paragraph of the story, tied it to the BDS movement.   Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

To the vast majority of American Jewish organizations, this action was seen as an attack on them.   While many American Jews are unhappy with the actions of Israel in the conflict (as are many Christians, myself included), they see a vote to divest as the same thing as siding with the BDS, and as challenging Israel’s very right to exist.  As reported in the Presbyterian Outlook, “A statement from the American Jewish Committee quotes Rabbi Noam Marans, director of inter-religious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, as saying the PC(USA) “is facilitating the delegitimization of Israel in the guise of helping Palestinians.”  It was later reported on that AJC fully viewed the action as tying PCUSA to BDS.  “It is a very sad day for Presbyterian-Jewish relations when church leaders from across the U.S. align with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

It does not matter that the vote was not to divest from Israel, but to divest from 3 companies that do business with Israel.  It does not matter that the resolution explicitly says “we are not joining BDS.”  Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

This was exacerbated by the publication of a “study guide” in January, by the Church’s “Israel Palestine Mission Network” – an advocacy group aimed at promoting justice for Palestinians.  Zionism Unsettled presented a one-sided view of the conflict, demonized Israel, and referred to Israel as an “apartheid” state.  The book was part of a larger book forthcoming by BDS advocates.   The 78 page document and accompanying DVD received a lot of criticism, and I am proud that I was able to successfully bring a commissioner’s resolution to the General Assembly that declared that “Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the PC(USA).”  Zionism Unsettled revealed the underlying motives of some but certainly not all proponents of divestment.  Many supporters simply saw the issue through the lens of Palestinian suffering.  Some saw it through the lens of ethics.   BUT the American Jewish community views it through a different lens as being deeply hurtful.   I experienced that firsthand, when I encountered a Jewish Friend  who was at GA, trying to provide support in the fight against divestment.  I truly saw pain in his eyes, when he talked about the sense of being under attack he felt by the pro-divestment proponents.   He saw it through a different lens. Symbolism counts.  Perception matters. 

 The perception of many commissioners may have been impacted by the presence of a group of Jewish people representing a group outside of the Jewish Mainstream, who wore shirts saying “Another Jew for Divestment.”  All week long, Commissioners saw these shirts.   To many of them, this said “Oh, American Jews support divestment? This can’t be too bad.”  The absence, until Friday, of competing groups of mainstream Jews to voice the opposite message, came too late.   Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

For me, this issue is far from over.  We need to start examining the other lenses.  We need to put major effort into repairing relationships with our Jewish neighbors.  We need to extend an olive branch.   We need to figure out how to have leverage on peacemaking issues, since we will lose the ability to influence CAT, HP, and Motorola.  We need provide the same amount of care and concern for our own members in many parts of the country, hurt by their perception of what we have done. We need to examine the internal processes by which we discern these matters.     Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

Michael Gizzi
Ruling Elder Commissioner
Presbytery of Great Rivers

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