Our community lost a special man and extraordinary Jewish professional in Alvin Rackner, who served as Executive Director of Jewish Family and Child Service from 1966-1993. Alvin's legacy is at the heart of Jewish Family and Child Service, including his astonishing efforts in resettling Jews from the Former Soviet Union in the 1970s and early 1990s. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Shirley, and the entire Rackner family. May Alvin's memory be for a blessing.
Last week, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), which has nearly 2 million members, decided by a vote of 310-303 to divest from three American companies that do business with Israel – Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions. A similar proposal was narrowly defeated two years ago. The reason given by the assembly’s Stated Clerk Rev. Gradyne Parsons was, “We as a church cannot profit from the destruction of [Palestinian] homes and lives.”
The church will divest from Caterpillar, because its bulldozers have been used to demolish Palestinian homes (Caterpillar states it supplies bulldozers to the American government and not to Israel, plus, these same bulldozers are used to take down illegal Jewish outposts). It will drop Hewlett-Packard because the Israel Navy has used its products to maintain the blockade of the Gaza Strip (ruled by the terrorist group Hamas) and because its biometric scanners are in place at checkpoints (HP says they help people reach and carry out their business in a faster and safer way). It will also divest from Motorola Solutions because the IDF buys the company’s communication technologies (which are used to defend Israel).
The PCUSA decision has less to do with the choice of companies than with the message the vote is sending. The Israeli government and many American Jewish groups, including the broadly representative Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), have denounced the move as an effort against Israel, and in particular as a victory for the international campaign known as “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” (BDS) movement, which seeks to delegitimize Israel.
It is important to note that the PCUSA decision includes an amendment saying “this decision is not to be construed as divestment from Israel or as an alignment with the global BDS movement.” The Church will continue to keep other investments in Israel, as well as look for projects which improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.
Some critics reject that assurance; they say the resolution on limited divestment was drafted by people who support the full BDS initiative.
In a statement released by the president of the JCPA, the national umbrella body of our Community Relations Committee, Rabbi Steve Gutow said, “The decision by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three U.S. based companies because of their sales to Israel is outrageous. We are deeply disappointed, hurt, and saddened. But we are not surprised, given the deep animus that a determined core group of church officials has demonstrated against both the Jewish people and the State of Israel. This decision will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on relations between mainstream Jewish groups and the national Presbyterian Church.
J Street stated the following, "We do not support the decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three North American companies doing business in the Palestinian territory…Moving forward, rather than continuing to pursue a strategy of divestment, we urge the PCUSA to seek out positive and constructive forms of engagement to resolve this conflict that affirm the legitimate concerns, narratives and claims of Israelis and Palestinians alike. We have and will continue to partner with those in the Church who seek that productive path forward.”
There is likely to be plenty of fallout from this counterproductive and divisive move, but it is important to keep in mind that the Jewish community has many allies within the Presbyterian community who reject this decision. John Brinegar of Grants Pass, one of eight commissioners from Oregon who attended the Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit last week, served on the pivotal Committee on the Middle East that ultimately recommended divestment. In our conversations with Mr. Brinegar in advance of the conference he assured us that he would speak out and vote against any anti-Israel overtures. Also, Rev. Barbara Campbell of St. Marks Presbyterian, which shares space with P’nai Or (a local congregation), has proven to be a good friend to the Jewish community; she also opposes this shortsighted decision.
We will continue to update you as we get more information. And, interestingly, the next biennial Presbyterian gathering scheduled for 2016 will be held right here in Portland!
The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and its Community Relations Committee will continue to work with Presbyterian ministers and lay people here in Oregon and Southwest Washington who support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and advocate for a two-state solution. As Rabbi James Gibson of Pittsburgh recently wrote, “Those who choose divestment instead should know that they are divesting from cherished relationships, not just corporations.”
Shabbat shalom and let’s continue to pray for the safe release of the three teenage boys Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal who are still missing in Israel. I urge you to send your message of support.
PS – No Marc's Remarks next week as we celebrate July 4th.