"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Presbyterian Church (USA): Divestment from Companies Helping Israel

By a narrow vote of 310 to 303, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted in June 2014 to divest about $21 million in stock from Motorola, Caterpillar, and Hewlett Packard because their respective products were being used by the Israeli Government in violent occupation of the Palestinian territories. The Friends Fiduciary Corp, which manages investments for 250 Quaker groups, had divested from Catepillar, Motorola, and Veolia Environment two years earlier, and in 2013 the Mennonite Central Committee decided not to “knowingly invest in companies that benefit from products or services used to perpetrate acts of violence against Palestinians [and] Israelis.”[1] This point brings up the ethical point of what to do about companies that sell products used in violence by the Palestinians. To occupy is not like being occupied, though violence is violence. Moreover, using divestment from holding equity in a company may not be a very effective strategy, other than perhaps serving as a symbol, though even in this respect the effort can fad without having brought about the desired policy change.

The Caterpillar bulldozers used by the Israelis to topple Palestinian neighborhoods in shows of “collective justice” had actually been sold to the U.S. Government, which in turn either sold or gave the trucks to Israel. Even if Caterpillar’s management could possibly have predicted the eventual transfer from the buyer to a third party, holding the company ethically responsible for the actions of the U.S. Government would be unfair. To be sure, were the product inherently dangerous, such as a grenade, the eventual use could be anticipated even by the manufacturer, but a bulldozer truck’s use is not inherently violent. Nor would it be fair to draw attention to the company simply out of frustration with the U.S. Government, given the power of the main Israeli lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). If the U.S. Government is looking the other way as it hands over billions of dollars in aid to Israel even as it continues to occupy Palestinian territory and build still more settlements, taking frustration out on the companies that sell to Israel’s government violates the ethical principle of fairness. Even if divestment pressures the companies not to sell to Israel, the products can wind up there in ways that are beyond the ability of companies to control.

Furthermore, how much financial damage to the three companies is exacted from selling $21 million in stock? Presumably buyers exist—the Dow at the time heading close to 17,000 and the S&P above 1960. The principle impact, I submit, is symbolic; a religious group of 1.76 million members essentially says “No” to Israel’s violence-ridden occupation of a people. The ethical dimension is salient owing to the fact that the group is religious in nature. Yet even in this respect, like the years of divestment from South Africa to free Nelson Mandela and put an end to apartheid, the creation of a symbol does not portend quick results. Indeed, the condition of divestment can itself become part of the status quo, rather than an event.

Additionally, the symbol may backfire. At the Presbyterian assembly meeting, Rabbi Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, described the vote as coming out of a “deep animus” against “both the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”[2] To be sure, as depicted in the Oscar-winning 1947 film, Gentleman’s Agreement, anti-Semitism can be as subtle as simply saying nothing after a joke at a dinner table. Following the defeat of the Nazi Germany, many Americans were doubtless able to conclude that anti-Semitism and racism had been squashed “over there”—meaning there’s none of that here. The film demonstrates just how pervasive denial can be. Nevertheless, anti-Semitism (and racism) can also be used as a weapon that obfuscates the real point of a decision such as that of the Presbyterians. The violence of an occupier is sufficiently galvanizing for observers that the alternative charge of anti-Semitism has the air of phoniness. In other words, a person can be against such violence without hating Jews.

Therefore, both the divestment strategy and the charge of anti-Semitism can be viewed as weak responses. To the extent that political mobilization would be futile too, given the political power of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, D.C., we might just be left with a “no good alternative” situation in which the quagmire goes on and on. With regard to the natural frustration at the status quo protected by long-entrenched, powerful interests, perhaps the sad reality is that most people simply tune out.



[1] Jaweed Kaleem, “Presbyterian Church (USA) Makes Controversial Divestment Move Against Israel,” The Huffington Post, June 20, 2014.
[2] Ibid.