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Monday, May 23, 2005

Divestment or dialogue?

Michael Paulson reports that Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, has decided to oppose efforts to divest Episcopal Church funds from Israel:

Shaw's statement, nearly four years after he provoked the ire of local Jewish leaders by joining a pro-Palestinian demonstration in front of the Israeli consulate, paves the way for a joint Jewish-Episcopal trip to Israel and Palestine this winter during which each group will introduce the other to different perspectives on the Middle East conflict.

Shaw is bucking a trend that has swept the liberal denominations — with the happy exception of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Paulson writes:

Some denominations have decided not to pursue divestment, including the Unitarian Universalist Association, based in Boston, according to spokesman John Hurley.

"For UUs and other people concerned about peace in the Middle East, frustration with the lack of progress makes ideas like divestment seem very compelling," says a letter that the Unitarian Universalist Association sends to people who ask about divestment. "However, in addition to the Unitarian Universalist Association's commitment to a just and lasting peace in Israel/Palestine, we are also committed to maintaining good interfaith relationships here at home."

("Bishop Backs Off Push To Divest Funds," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 5.23.05, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 23 May 2005 at 8:24 AM

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James Field:

May 23, 2005 08:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

On a purely practical level, I suppose I am glad that the UUA has ducked the divestment issue. But talk of dialogue vs. divestment sounds an awful lot like Ronald Reagan's "constructive engagement" with South Africa.

Using "interfaith relations" as a reason not to divest seems to me to be a rather sanguine way of saying Jewish relations and lives are much more important that Muslim relations and lives.

I am not going to advocate UUA divestment from Israel, but at the same time I would hesitate to call it a "happy exception." I wonder more if it is yet another time when the exigencies of political liberalism trump the principles of liberal religion.


May 23, 2005 09:57 AM | Permalink for this comment

It's a happy exception in the sense that Unitarian Universalists have managed not to do something counterproductive. Unfortunately, I'm aware of very little meaningfully constructive interfaith dialogue between Unitarian Universalists and Jews -- nor am I aware of any meaningfully constructive Unitarian Universalist activities that can actually help the Palestinians. And yes, I am aware of a UU independent affiliate organization that claims to be "for justice in the Middle East." Aren't we all?

The tricky thing about the principles of liberal religion is that a very wide range of conflicting political proposals can justifiably claim to be rooted in them -- including many political proposals at odds with, say, UUJME's perspective. If delegates showed up at the General Assembly with a good proposal rooted in their congregations' lived experience (especially including interfaith dialogue) as well as in their principles, well then I'd jump up and down. Until then, I'll be glad that we don't put our well-meaning foot in our mouth.

James Field:

May 23, 2005 10:30 AM | Permalink for this comment

I think our point of agreement is that any move towards divestment in the UUA would be shallow and futile at this point.

I think I misread your intent with the languge "happy exception." On the other hand, I fear that this may be another case of being more concerned with procedural justice than substantive justice.


May 24, 2005 11:23 AM | Permalink for this comment

It's been a concern in my circles--where we have a couple of theologians, inclusing one who studies Jewish-Christian relations from the Middle Ages forward--with the turn that progressives, including progressive Christians, have taken toward a near-unqualified support of the Palestinian cause.

I don't quite want to get into "Does criticism of Israel equate to anti-Semitism?" argument, but Bp. Shaw/Br. Tom seems to understand three points pretty well. First, we Christians do not have an auspicious history of good relations with Jews, and so it seems concomitant on us to take particular care when we address matters that involve our "elder brothers and sisters." Because of our history, we're probably quite likely to fall into the rhetoric of anti-Semitism if we are not careful. Second, there ain't nobody very clean in the mess that is Israel/Palestine. Each "side" here commits heinous and immoral acts on a regular basis. In taking sides in the fashion we often have, we align ourselves with that particular immorality. That troubles me. I'm not suggesting disengagement or inactivity--just the opposite. But an engagement where we are a brokering third party, rather than a support to one side or the other. (And this can apply to conservative Christians, who often unqualifiedly support Israel.) And finally, perhaps Christians as the third "people of the book" can play a role in brokering peace, but only if we can demonstrate to our older and younger siblings that we don't play favorites.

I'm glad to see Bp. Tom take the stance he did. It might lead to more reflective consideration of how we have and can engage with Jews and Muslims in Israel and the larger world. Probably not, but at least it's a step greater than most of our religious and political leaders are willing to take.


May 25, 2005 07:09 PM | Permalink for this comment

As a Jewish-American, I did not know the position of the UUA before I joined a UU church. But I would say that it is a "happy exception" even if not done for the right reasons.

One could argue for an analogy between apartheid and the situation in the occupied territories (not in Israel proper, where Arab citizens have many rights denied them in Arab countries). However, the historical position of South African whites and Israeli Jews are very different.

There was never any history of genocide against the Dutch Afrikaner and English populations of South Africa. Even more importantly, the African National Congress was a progressive organization which allowed for white participation. The history of decolonization in Africa provided no incidents of whites being victims of genocide. Therefore, it could be anticipated that the white South Africa might fall, but white South Africans would be personally secure.

The situation with Israeli Jews is quite different. The Palestianian movement is nationalist rather than universalist. Arab national ideology has long called for the destruction of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of Jews. Genocidal statements against Jews continue to be common and accepted language in Arab countries.

I would also add that divestment against Israel resembles the Arab boycott against Israel, which was aimed at eliminating the Jewish state. No matter what good intentions supporters of divestment may have in their own minds, Jews see it as hostility with potentially genocidal implications. At the same time the Presbyterians voted for divestment against Israel, they also supported missionary efforts focused on converting Jews to Christianity. The two efforts were not directly related, but how could Jews not see it as support for wiping them off the planet?

Gabriel Cardona-Fox:

December 13, 2005 12:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

As a Unitarian Universalists I am extremely disappointed that the UUA has pandered to the Israel lobby in the United States and refused to follow the courageous example of other liberal denominations and divest from the State of Israel.

One of the things that has made me the most proud about being a UU is that our denominations have a long history of standing up for reform and the protection of basic human dignity even when such stances were very controversial. We were instrumental in fighting against slavery, for the political rights of women, and against segregation in this country. Today we stand united in support of gay marriage, against legalized torture, in defense of the separation of church and state, and have we are vocally opposed to the erosion of our civil liberties. During World War II, Unitarians risked their lives in occupied Europe to help Jews escape. When Mandela was in jail and apartheid was the law in South Africa we called for a boycott. Most recently Rev. Skinford went to jail for an act of civil disobedience to bring awareness to the atrocities in the Sudan. Why is it then that when it comes to Israel the UUA chooses to tread lightly and shies away from the right action?

The answer, I believe, is that we are horrified at the prospects of being called anti-Semitic. Apparently the Israel lobby in the US has succeeded brilliantly suppressing any intelligent debate on the Middle East by equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. The result is that many important voices on this issue have been silenced, denied access to sources of public dissemination and slandered as racists and neo-nazis (just look at Norman Finkelstein’s ordeal in publishing his latest book). The ADL has gone as far as to compile files, essentially black lists, on private citizens who criticize Israel in the United States. Ironically, it appears that people are freer to criticize their government in Israel than we are to critisize Israel in the US. When we accepted the embargo on Milosovic’s Serbia no one calling us anti-Slavic would be taken seriously. However when it comes to Israel it is different. This sad turn of events is having a disastrous effect on our foreign policy and our relation to the world’s other democracies. It is also degrading the concept of anti-Semitism and making it almost meaningless. And sadly for us UUs it is quashing our moral integrity on issues of foreign policy.

UUs are afraid of being slandered as anti-Semitic because we openly accept people of all faiths in our congregations and because we do not promote one faith over others even atheism. Many UU, including the minister at my congregation, are also practicing Jews. We regularly celebrate Jewish holidays and learn about Jewish traditions. For this reason we are afraid that any mention of anti-Semitism will divide our congregations and expose us as a fraud. “See” our detractors will say, “They are really not as tolerant as they pretend to be.” In a way it’s like being called un-American during the McCarthy witch-hunts. However at the time this did not cower us.

It is a real sad irony that it is exactly our openness and tolerance towards others that is stopping us UU from taking a courageous stance before one of the greatest injustices of our time and perhaps the biggest challenge to peace in the Middle East. On this issue I prefer to stand with the UCC.


December 13, 2005 07:37 AM | Permalink for this comment

Gabriel, I'm glad your congregation has internal theological diversity. That's not the same as interfaith dialogue with actual Jewish communities, however -- and it's that absense that represents a huge problem UUs would face if we took up the highly symbolic issue of divestment.

I can think of almost nothing positive -- for UUs, for Palestinians, for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, for Jewish peace groups, for Jews in America -- that could result from a UU resolution favoring divestment. As a symbolic act, it would please only the convinced anti-Israelis among us. But I don't have a vote at the General Assembly so it isn't up to me.

Here's a fine news review about the Presbyterian Church USA's divestment controversy from Trinity College's outstanding quarterly, Religion in the News: "Presbyterians Divest the Jews" (Fall 2005).


December 13, 2005 07:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

The Presbyterians and UCC have gone further than just protesting occupation, They have also been protesting what they call "Christian Zionism", by which they mean the belief by Christians that God has an ongoing special relationship with the Jewish people involving real estate. A recent Presbyterian poll shows that most Presbyterian churchmembers share that belief while most clergy do not. ( Anti-Christian-Zionism can slide into a pretty sectarian world view. For example writes, "God's mission for Israel to the world is summed up in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ who "fulfilled" God's purposes for Israel..."

That is, while God may have had a covenant with Jews before Jesus was born, any such covenant has been invalidated by Jesus' teachings. So not only Zionism, but any kind of Judaism, has been invalid for two thousand years. That is a traditional Christian view. What's new is that it is now considered progressive. (Let me be clear that in my view it is completely reasonable to believe that God has special relationships with Israel, Christianity, Islam etc.. Many people think that. They also think God wants us to get along with each other. It is perfectly possible to attack specific Israeli policies without making theological attacks on the idea of a Jewish covenant with God.)

Presbyterians and other mainline churches have also been appealing to religious solidarity to justify opposition to Israel. They argue that Christians should oppose Israel because some of the Palestinians Israel is oppressing are Christians. That isn't exqctly liberal thinking.

I am grateful that the UUA has not chosen to go down these paths. My congregation includes many people of Jewish heritage. Many have relatives who are practicing Jews. I am glad the UUA has decided not to put pressure on all those family relationships. In my view, the decision of the Presbyterian leadership to start this fight was very self-destructive.

Gabriel Cardona-Fox:

December 14, 2005 05:12 PM | Permalink for this comment


Interesting article. If anything it shows how, what you consider to be a highly symbolic act by the Presbyterian Church, has actually ruffled the feathers of Israeli apologists and provoked a real debate on the middle east – something that 40 years or so called “interfaith dialogue” never did. This alone, should be reason enough for the UUA to join other denominations in selective divestment.

But since you are having difficulty seeing how divestment can make a real difference in the conflict I am going to bring two examples that you may be familiar with.

Today, hardcore Israeli Zionist are effectively building an alliance with fundamentalist Christian churches in the US which involves large investments in tourism – see the future creation of a biblical theme park sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. Church money makes a difference it is not only purely symbolic. Not only are fundamentalist organizations sending a strong message of support for Israel’s regime, they are telling their congregations to put their money where their beliefs mouths are. By investing in Israel they are actually helping preserve its illegal system and they are making enough of a difference to make the Israeli government excited. If fundamentalist can invest in a criminal state why can’t we divest?

Divestment campaigns against individual companies like Caterpillar are taking their toll.
Since 1967 CAT has been providing specially designed bulldozers to the IDF for the purpose of demolishing homes and expanding settlements in the occupied territories. (Check out Their equipment has been used to dispossess countless Palestinians of their homes and on occasion has been used as instruments of death. In March 16, 2003, Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist was brutally killed by a Caterpillar D9 bulldozer while protesting the demolition of some homes in the West Bank – a policy the UUA officially condemns. (See Her family is currently suing Caterpillar in federal court and may actually win. Because of the campaign CAT is suffering a public relations nightmare and financial strains that may eventually force it and other corporations like them to be more selective as to the type of business they engage in.

Despite the UUA’s official opposition to the demolition of Palestinian homes, under current policy our congregations can invest in CAT (essentially owning part of a corporation). How we can claim to oppose the destruction of Palestinian homes and at the same time own stock in Caterpillar Corporation is beyond my comprehension.

Some additional thoughts:

Divestment works best if it is part of a large social movement not one involving only religious denominations but one where other publicly controlled institutions like universities, clubs, gilds etc. are involved in. Israeli apologists have been working very hard to stop this by singling out entities like the Presbyterian Church as anti-Semitic extremists. The way they have been able to do this is essentially by turning the debate away from what it really is, an issue of international relations, and into an issue of inter-faith or domestic race relations. The fact of the matter is that criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic. UUs have opposed the Israeli occupation not because Israel is Jewish state but because of it’s government’s immoral and illegal policies, particularly in the occupied territories. There is no reason I can think of why, morally, this issue should be treated any differently that say our stance on Burma or Sudan. By divesting we would not be attacking Jews as a group but rather we would be acting as conscientious community and public entity with significant financial power against a government we deem reprehensible. By failing to do this under the guise of preserving “inter-faith relations” excuse we are falling into the perverse rhetorical trap set up by the Israel lobby and people like Desowitz to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

There is also something morally reprehensible about talking about divestment as an issue of interfaith relations. As someone noted earlier, in effect we are saying that we value more our relations to the Jewish community than to the Muslim community. Considering our Judeo-Christian origins and the makeup of our congregations this may very well be a reality. However, I ask you, is this a message the UUA wants to send the world? Should this be our public stance? It certainly has worked for many politicians in the US who cater to the Israel’s supporters (just look at Hillary Clinton’s recent statements…) but in my book this is against everything we sand for.

Finally, for those who argue that the case of Israel is completely different from the case of South Africa under apartheid should read Amnesty International’s Human Rights Report on Israel, they should go look at the illegal wall the Israelis are building, they should ask a Palestinian about the daily harassment, the countless indignities he puts up with every day and ask him about his freedom of movement inside the occupied territories. The association with South Africa also becomes obvious when we remember that throughout the 1980s, despite an international embargo against South Africa, Israel provided the South African military with training and supplies. Those who claim that inside Israel’s borders there is no discrimination could also benefit from talking to an Arab Israeli who must carry an ID with her designating her as a “non-Jew” and who can’t bring her family in exile to return because they are not Jewish. We can debate the technicalities regarding the apartheid analogy all you want the bottom-line remains that Israel has been engaging in an illegal and immoral occupation for many years now and that, like South Africa in the past, has violated about every international convention and UN resolution in the books. Israel is a pariah state and in this regard it is no different from Apartheid South Africa, which incidentally was forced to reform not through dialogue but through real political and economic pressure (including divestment) by conscientious people like you and I.

We UUs like to say that we express our faith by our actions rather than by our words. It is time had the courage to do so with regards to Israel. Rachel Corrie, age 23 certainly did and she paid with her life.

P.S. Regarding the last post, I don’t see a problem with protesting Christian Zionism. As UUs we affirm that no one nation or religion has a privileged relationship to the divine. Historically we have rejected all forms of zealot millenarianism, and more so when it is used as justification ethnic cleansing, I don’t see how the Jerry Falwell brand of Zionism is any different.

Gabriel Cardona-Fox:

December 15, 2005 03:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hey fellows, this is what "constructive dialougue" is getting us...

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