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.

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.

5 thoughts on “Disinvited

  1. This month alone Beinart is speaking in 4 Jewish institutions (synagogues, Hillel’s, JCC’s). (He even lists them on his own calendar.)

    “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.”

  2. If the JCPA can sponsor a trip for GA commissioners in the Presbyterian Church, just imagine how much they are doing to influence congressmen and women.

  3. This is in response to “Disinvited”, a blog posted by Rev. Timothy Simpson on May 3.

    It was I who indeed approached the St. Augustine Presbytery to participate in a trip to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). I am the director of one of the 125 community agencies that belong to JCPA. I heard about the trip and contacted the presbytery which was kind to place me in contact with several commissioners including Rev. Simpson, who expressed an interest in the trip.

    When I discussed the trip with Rev. Simpson, I was unaware that the trip planned for Presbyterian pastors or elders is for those who are open to considering why divestment from companies operating in Israel is not an appropriate peacemaking path. The fact that I was not aware of this, does not exempt me from responsibility for what had occurred with Rev. Simpson. I hear his anger and I apologize to him for his disappointment.

    I had the pleasure to speak with Rev. Simpson after his discussion with JCPA. We had a 90 minute conversation that I greatly enjoyed. Despite deep differences of opinion between us, I was impressed by his intellect and pleasantness and I found him to be a very interesting partner for dialogue. We agreed that we both will continue to be in contact and I look forward to continuing this dialogue in Florida.

    Having said this, I do want to clarify a few points Rev. Simpson makes in his column.

    As I understand it, the trip to Israel is neither “scripted” nor an “exercise in indoctrination”. The speakers addressing participants include Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis as well as Palestinians and other Christians living in Israel and Palestine. They have diverse views, including those that are very supportive and some that are critical of the policies of the Israeli government – and many in between. The trip includes visits to Bethlehem and Ramallah. It does not shy away from seeing and discussing the security barrier or Arab minorities. The purpose of the trip is to witness the extreme complexity of the region, an intention which is in stark contrast to trips hosted by one-sided organizations such as the Sabeel Institute and others.

    By the same token, the entire “American Jewish community” cannot be painted with one brush-stroke. The Jewish community and our organizations are diverse, just as in the Presbyterian Church (USA). We do not as a whole exclude dissent. There are many mainstream American Jewish organizations that are on record criticizing various Israeli government policies. Peter Beinart, who is indeed somebody who represents a minority position, has been invited to express his views not only at JCPA’s annual conference, but also the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, one of the largest annual gatherings of the organized American Jewish community.

    As noted already, I enjoyed my conversation with Rev. Simpson and look forward to our continuing dialogue. While we may disagree on strategies, we are deeply united in our desire for peace in the Middle East.

    Luis Fleischman, Ph.D.
    
Executive Director,
    

Jewish Community Relations Council

    Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County

    1. You’re a good man, Luis, and I am grateful through this episode to have met you. You treated me from start to finish with kindness and hospitality. And you are right to correct my statement about the whole Jewish community. That’s too broad, as you note. The point I was trying to make is that it seems to me that there is a more vigorous yet nuanced public airing of these issues in Israel than there is in the US. But there are are tough-minded people like yourself who are nonetheless advocating that it be had, and I support you in your efforts at openness and frank, yet charitable disagreement.

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