Rabbis (as well priests, ministers and imams) have a special standing in society at large. This is based on the general level of respect granted religious leaders based on an appreciation of their religious knowledge and commitment to lives based on the power of their faith.
No one questions religious leaders’ propriety when they quote religious doctrine. The average person understands that they have usually spent years in studying sacred texts and traditions to ground their words and teachings with respect to correct religious belief and practice.
The challenge arises when there are issues of moral import in society that seem to call for a religious response. After all, it is said, the Hebrew prophets were not afraid to “speak truth to power.” Therefore some look to their clergy for leadership in word and deed on issues that are often complex and multifaceted.
That said, there are issues that are so crystal clear that one does not have to be a religious leader to tie them to one’s faith.
This week is the 50th anniversary of the abduction and murder of three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner — by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. They gave up their lives to demonstrate the moral power of these simple truths from the Bible: All humanity is created “in the image of God”; we are to “love our neighbors as ourselves”; we are “to have one law for everyone, citizen and stranger” (Genesis 1.27, Leviticus 19.18, Exodus 12.49 and Leviticus 24.22).
But given the complexity of so many issues we face today, I am skeptical when a religious leader stands up to proclaim a “sacred, moral mandate” for a particular political position.
Because of this, I am personally dismayed by the outcome of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in regard to divestment of church funds from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola because of the role their products play in Israel’s management of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank. Each company has been cited by the Presbyterian Church (USA) for making life harder for Palestinians by aiding the Israeli authorities.
The fact of this suffering by Palestinians is countered by the requirement of Israel to maintain order and protect Israeli citizens from harm. And yet, the same Caterpillar tractors that bulldoze Palestinian homes also bulldoze illegal Israeli settler outposts. Hewlett-Packard and Motorola technologies are used to enhance communication to keep terrorists from entering Israel proper.
All of this is going on with the backdrop of three Israeli teens having been abducted from a hitchhiking post in the West Bank, an action that has received widespread praise by many Palestinians, except for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has condemned it categorically.
My colleagues who have supported divestment are careful to say that this does not diminish their support for Israel’s security or their commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict.
The problem is that their support of this divestment initiative plays into the hands of those BDS (boycott, sanction and divestment) activists who are absolutely clear that this is simply a stage for them toward their goal of eliminating Israel as a Jewish state. The following is from a document published by NGO Monitor, entitled, “Something for Presbyterians to Consider – On Peacemaking in the Middle East.” From the section “BDS Leaders in Their Own Words,” it is chilling to read the following:
>> John Spritzler, pro-BDS author: “I think the BDS movement will gain strength from forthrightly explaining why Israel has no right to exist. BDS’s stated goals (ending the occupation, equality for non-Jews and Jews and the right of return for the Palestinian refugees) logically imply the end of Israel as a Jewish state.”
>> Ahmed Moor, pro-BDS author: “Ending the occupation doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean upending the Jewish state itself. BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state.”
>> As’ad AbuKhalil, pro-BDS author: “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the State of Israel. That should be stated as an unambiguous goal. There should not be any equivocation on the subject. Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the State of Israel.”
The disclaimers of the Presbyterian Church do not keep these authors and activists from using the decision of their national body to divest holdings from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola to trumpet this as the next step toward their ultimate goals.
I am deeply disappointed that good, caring, moral men and women from the Presbyterian Church (USA) would not defeat the divestment resolution even when it was pointed out in the debate that their decision would be used precisely to affirm the hateful words quoted above.
Rabbis, ministers, priests and imams do have a moral voice that is powerful, rooted in faith and cloaked in sacred teaching. All the more reason not to go along with those whose purposes do not live up to that high, ethical purpose.
I am committed to continue to work with Presbyterian ministers and lay people in the Pittsburgh region who support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and advocate for a two-state solution. Those who choose divestment instead should know that they are divesting from cherished relationships, not just corporations.
Rabbi James Gibson is the senior rabbi of Temple Sinai.