I am a lifelong Presbyterian. My father and grandfather were Presbyterian elders; so am I, at a big Presbyterian church in downtown Chicago.
I am also the co-author of divestment laws in two U.S. states. I believe in divestment, where appropriate. Threatening to pull our money out of corporations doing business in certain parts of the world can be a good idea, if done in the right place and for the right reasons.
Divestment was, at one time, a good idea for the province of Northern Ireland, where virulent anti-Catholic discrimination made Catholics two and a half-times more likely than Protestants to be out of a job. That's why I co-authored and successfully lobbied for the enactment of divestment legislation incorporating the MacBride Principles, nine fair employment principles, in Connecticut in 1984 and New Hampshire in 1989. Companies doing business in Northern Ireland which failed to adhere to the principles could face funds being pulled.
Divestment was a good idea for apartheid South Africa, where a white minority government segregated and discriminated against black inhabitants of the country. The Sullivan Principles, a corporate code of conduct upon which the MacBride Principles were modeled, provided the same economic leverage for companies doing business in South Africa.
Divestment is a terrible idea for Israel. That's why, at its General Assembly in Detroit this June 14-21, Presbyterians should vote down any measure which contemplates divestment from companies doing business in Israel.
Why? History. Context.
The laws I helped get passed into law in two U.S. states were designed not just to address the problem of anti-Catholic discrimination; they were meant to attack the very structure of the province within which that discrimination flourished. The entity "Northern Ireland" had been maintained over decades by so-called "emergency" laws which, among other things, had allowed some of its citizens to be detained without charge or right to counsel and stripped of the right to a jury trial for certain charges. Inequality was built into its structure: in voting, employment, housing.
The MacBride Principles campaign of the 1980s helped lead to a dramatic shift: a peace process which began in the 1990s and culminated in the signing of peace agreements on Good Friday, 1998. Those agreements, one among political parties in Northern Ireland and the other between the British and Irish governments, contained sweeping provisions which ended direct British rule of Northern Ireland and changed Northern Ireland's system of government, creating new governmental institutions, allowing greater political participation and guaranteeing certain civil rights. Today, Martin McGuinness, an Irish Republican who once spent time in a British prison, is the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
The Sullivan Principles for South Africa had a similar dual purpose. They weren't meant just to remedy the unequal position of blacks in the country; they were designed to help do away with the apartheid government itself. The divestment campaign worked: the apartheid government fell in 1994. Nelson Mandela was inaugurated South Africa's President on May 10 of that year.
Seen in that context, using the same blunt tool against the State of Israel makes no sense. Do we really want to subvert the nation of Israel?
The modern State of Israel came into being shortly after the end of WWII, when Hitler's mass murder of six million Jews left the world aghast. One of the pastors of my church, the late John Boyle, was a 19-year-old sergeant in the U.S. Army when his unit helped liberate the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. What John saw there led him to become a Presbyterian minister; he vowed to be on the side of whatever was against the forces that had led to the carnage he had witnessed. He never forgot it. We should not either.
Many Presbyterians of good will are rightly concerned with the plight of Palestinians. I am one of them. But divestment is not the way to help.
There is another way: engage. Reach out. Travel, listen, learn, meet, speak, write, lobby, donate, invest, pray, press for change. We can, with God's help, change the world, without wielding the weapon of divestment in a place it does not belong.