Reform head urges Presbyterians not to support BDS

Rabbi Rick Jacobs warns church before vote: ‘BDS undermines two-state solution’; invites leaders to meet Netanyahu

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs (photo credit: URJ via JTA)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs (photo credit: URJ via JTA)

WASHINGTON — One day before the Presbyterian Church (USA) was poised to vote on a resolution to divest from three companies seen as supporting Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the Union of Reform Judaism’s Rabbi Rick Jacobs addressed the annual Presbyterian General Assembly Thursday morning, calling on them to reject the resolution.

Jacobs, who delivered an opening address at the Detroit conference on Wednesday evening, spoke out in favor of a two-state solution but criticized divestment resolutions during the Thursday discussion.

“As the leader of millions of North American Jews, I can say that the overwhelming majority of American Jews support two states for two peoples,” Jacobs told delegates. “I am proud to say that our Reform Movement has a long-standing policy of opposition to the Israeli settlements. We see how the occupation causes pain and hardship to Palestinians every single day.”

At the same time, Jacobs emphasized that his movement opposes divestment and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) “because it undermines the two-state solution we so desperately need.”

Jacobs warned that the BDS movement “is an effort to delegitimize the very existence of Israel” and said to attendees that although “we may disagree with specific policies of the Israeli government, we are deeply committed to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

The resolution at hand, formally known as Overture 0404, would divest Presbyterian Church funds from three US companies — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions — which the resolution endorsed by the Church’s Middle East Issues Committee says “profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.”

The committee voted 45-20 on Tuesday in favor of the resolution, which will be put before the entire plenary for a vote on Friday.

During the same question-and-answer session on the resolution at which Jacobs spoke, the chairman of the Middle East Issues Committee said that the committee “was worried that divestment would be seen as divestment from Israel,” and so it included a statement supporting a two-state-solution in the resolution. The committee also researched the level of investment in each of the three companies, and found that the Presbyterian Church (USA) hold less than one-half of one percent of shares in each of the three companies.

This week’s resolution is not an isolated case. Ten years ago, the General Assembly adopted by a vote of 431-62 a resolution that called on the church “to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.”

That resolution stated that “the occupation…has proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict” and that “horrific acts of violence and deadly attacks on innocent people, whether carried out by Palestinian suicide bombers or by the Israeli military, are abhorrent and inexcusable by all measures, and are a dead-end alternative to a negotiated settlement.”

In the same year, the General Assembly passed a resolution endorsing what they described as the Palestinian Right of Return.

Two years later, however, the General Assembly voted 483-28 to replace the language that applied “phased, selective divestment” on companies working in Israel with language seen as more tempered. In the resolution, it also recognized Israel’s right to build a security barrier along its pre-1967 boundaries.

At the time, the General Assembly acknowledged the “hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion” following the 2004 resolution adding that members of the Assembly were “grieved by the pain that this has caused, accept responsibility for the flaws in our process, and ask for a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.”

Another divestment initiative was narrowly rejected during the 2012 General Assembly by a vote of 333-331, but earlier the Church evoked the ire of many Jewish organizations for its distribution of a booklet entitled Zionism Unsettled.

The study guide, released in January, accuses Zionism of destroying both indigenous Palestinian lives and rich Jewish communities across the globe in a supremacist misinterpretation of God’s word, comparing it to “Christian exceptionalist beliefs [that] contributed to the Nazi Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, and countless other instances of tragic brutality.”

Jacobs told delegates that “Overture 0404 tries to separate divestment from Boycott Divestment Sanctions, but it can’t be done, especially in the climate of opinion created by Zionism Unsettled. The document, which is being sold through your online church store, is a vicious attack on Judaism, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

“A vote for divestment will cause a painful rift with the great majority of the Jewish community,” Jacobs warned.

He offered an alternate option, inviting two leading Presbyterian officials to join him for a meeting next week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “to express our deeply shared concerns.”

“If we are truly partners and you disapprove this divestment overture I look forward to sitting with your leadership in the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem. You can chose partnership and engagement or you can choose separation and divestment,” Jacobs said. “We should be partners in leading the interfaith world. These high level meetings are only the beginning of our faith communities working together for a two state solution.”

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