BDS Opponents' Pyrrhic Victory

Abid Katib / Getty Images

In the wake of the recent Presbyterian general assembly, opponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement have claimed victory because of the church’s decision not to divest from companies that assist Israel’s military. Jon Haber’s recent post on Open Zion is representative of this celebratory reasoning—but it’s wrong.

In fact, the outcome of Israel-related measures at the Presbyterian gathering, similar to the outcome at the Methodist’s general assembly, represents a victory for Palestine solidarity activists. It also shows that the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, while not yet powerful, is on the march in the United States. Haber writes that the Presbyterian Church endorsed “engagement and peacemaking policies” instead of aligning with the BDS movement. But this is wholly misleading.

The Presbyterian general assembly voted overwhelmingly—457-180—in favor of boycotting products made in illegal West Bank settlements. A similar measure passed at the Methodist general assembly earlier this year.

The church resolution that passed calls for “the boycott of all Israeli products coming from the occupied Palestinian Territories” and for “all nations” to prohibit settlement imports. The resolution also singled out AHAVA, an Israeli cosmetics company that has a main factory in a West Bank settlement, and the Hadiklaim Israel Date Growers, also made in an illegal settlement. The Palestine-based Boycott National Committee recognized this victory, stating that Palestinian civil society “warmly welcomes the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s resolute vote to boycott all products from Israeli colonial settlements.” What else could you call this vote other than a victory for the logic of boycotting Israel? The divestment related measure, which targeted the church’s holdings in Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola, did indeed fail—but only by two votes. The youth delegates at the general assembly voted in favor of divestment, an indication of where this issue is heading. Haber’s dismissal of divestment advocates as a “small group of partisans” does not match up to the fact that 331 commissioners voted in favor of divestment, which is nearly half of the commissioners who vote. And, in a first, the general assembly endorsed a “choice of conscience” option for pension holders disturbed by investments in those companies which help sustain Israel’s brutal occupation, though this was overturned on a procedural technicality. With these facts in mind, it is tough to accept Haber’s assertion that the BDS movement has suffered a “ten-year losing streak in every category of targeted institution.” The recent move by a Wall Street investment service firm to take Caterpillar, whose bulldozers demolish Palestinian homes, off of a list of “socially responsible” companies spurred the pension fund TIAA-CREF to divest $73 million in Caterpillar stock. The Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation also recently divested from Caterpillar. The use of bulldozers by Israel’s military played a key role in all of these decisions.

Ten-year losing streak? These recent moves are in fact the beginning of the BDS movement’s reach into the mainstream, though a tough battle awaits.

Rather than taking the Presbyterian general assembly as a defeat, BDS advocates are vowing to bring up the divestment issue again at future general assemblies. As Israel’s system of inequality between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea continues to entrench itself, BDS continue to grow. It’s likely that in two years, when churches again hold general assemblies, Haber will be lamenting a wholesale divestment victory.