A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by an American Jewish organization to go later this month on a trip to Israel/Palestine to discuss the situation between the two groups. Two weeks later, my erstwhile hosts retracted that offer.
The offer came because I am a commissioner to this summer’s 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA in Pittsburgh where we will be discussing the matter of divestment from particular companies, Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar and Motorola Solutions, who do business with the Israeli Defense Forces in their operations in the West Bank. (The United Methodists voted not to divest from the same three companies earlier today.)
This is the culmination of seven years of attempting to work with the companies and the Israelis to come up with a different solution. Unfortunately, the companies and the politicians seemed to dig in their heels, so ourCommittee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) has recommended that we take this action and add these companies to the list of those in which don’t invest, which already includes tobacco companies and those who make nuclear weapons.
Enter the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who is sponsoring the trip for commissioners. When I spoke to their representative after he extended the invitation via email through my presbytery, I was very clear about my background and commitments, but he assured me that this was no problem, that they welcomed the push back, that it was going to be a candid trip that would explore all sides of the issue and that all they asked was that I give them a chance to share their perspective. I assured him that I was eager to do this and that if a way could be found that would avoid having to take this action at the GA I would be relieved. I told him, however, that, as someone whose retirement funds are in these investments, I didn’t want to spend my “golden years” living off of “ill-gotten gain” which violated my conscience, a point which he said he respected. He told me that I would be hearing from the NY office the next day to firm up the arrangements.
But no one ever called to do this. Not the next day nor the next week. It was a full two weeks after the invitation was made, after daily emails and follow-up calls by me to them that I finally spoke to a woman in the NY office who told me that, unfortunately, they didn’t feel that I was the “right kind of person,” that I “didn’t meet criteria,” and that they feared I might “be a disruptive presence” on the trip. In other words, this was a trip designed for commissioners who were already opposed to divestment or who had not yet made up their minds but who might be wooed by being wined and dined on a trip into a carefully scripted and stage-managed environment. In short, it’s not going to be a trip on which disagreement is welcomed. So they disinvited me.
I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me much, given what people are saying to and about Peter Beinart, who is Jewish but whose popularity now approaches that of Yasser Arafat because of his calls for divestment from the West Bank. The American Jewish community seems to be unable to allow the kind of open manifestation of dissent that one sees all over the place in the state of Israel. You can disagree over there, but here, everyone has to stay inside the herd. So how much more difficult is it to talk to the American Jewish community when one is an outsider, like me, the Presbyterian General Assembly commissioner? They don’t want to have that conversation–it has to be a monologue. There is their way and that’s all there is to it. And because of this, the commissioners who apparently ARE the “right kind of people” to go on the trip will not have any credibility when they come back and speak to the assembly about their experiences, given that, from the very outset, this will have been an exercise in indoctrination, not fact-finding. By allowing people to go with whom they might disagree, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs would have shown strength by their openness and willingness to hear uncomfortable talk. This is how I felt about them after that first phone call. Instead, they now look weak, closed-minded and fearful. I would have thought better of them.