It was a blustery night in December-something 1950-something in a Midwestern city. Everything was dusted in white like a Currier & Ives photo as we piled into the car for the annual ritual – seeing the lights. Yes, those lights in a neighborhood known for its lavish holiday displays and its not-too-friendly attitude about Jews.
The kids were just having December envy about the decorations, but the parents knew about the other part of it – the real estate ads that said something about being in St. Somebody’s Parish with that wonderful church-related school close by, the realtors who conveniently had a house to show you somewhere else. Anti-Semitism in much of America was like that in those days – quiet and understated among educated people. You just didn’t get the house or the job or the bid from the sorority of blue-eyed blondes, but you didn’t get accused of manipulating Congress or practicing genocide or apartheid.
Throughout much of the 20th century, Jewish congregations and individuals often had good relations with mainstream Christians and their churches. We lived and worked alongside them, joined them for Thanksgiving celebrations and often shared the same political causes. We sang “Kumbaya,” marched for racial or gender equality and stocked the local food bank together.
Today, Palestinian sympathizers in some of these same groups favor boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to demonize and delegitimize Israel. The main component of the “Durban strategy,” adopted by the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum of the United Nations Durban Conference in 2001 and based on the use of false claims of war crimes, ethnic cleansing and apartheid, BDS includes the boycott of products and cultural amenities associated with Israel, divestment from companies doing business with Israel and sanctions against self-defense measures. Some scholars say that the sympathizer trend is about misplaced “Holocaust guilt” among people who believe the Palestinians are the victims.
Sadly, organized attempts at divestment are not just isolated incidents. They have been going on in Christian mainstream church groups since 2004, a full year before the Palestinian effort got organized. Jewish leaders have tried to meet with their colleagues in Christian church organizations to stem the tide of these actions, but they keep cropping up.
In October, Jewish groups pulled out of a meeting with Protestant colleagues over a letter from Christian leaders to congressmen calling for a possible suspension of U.S. aid to Israel. “While we remain committed to continuing our dialogue and our collaboration on the many issues of common concern, the letter represents an escalation in activity that the Jewish participants feel precludes a business-as-usual approach,” stated a letter sent by seven Jewish groups to their Christian counterparts in canceling their participation in the meeting in New York.
The event, an annual gathering, is known as the Christian-Jewish Roundtable and began in 2004 when the issue of Protestant groups divesting from their financial portfolios operations doing business with Israel rose to prominence. Prior to the Protestants’ letter to the lawmakers, participants had pledged to update one another on activities regarding Israel, such as the Palestinians’ statehood push in the United Nations and the upcoming Israeli elections.
The letter by the Jewish representatives was signed by the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The Anti-Defamation League had announced earlier that it would not attend the meeting.
Signers of the Protestants’ letter to Congress – the heads of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ – said that they have “witnessed the pain and suffering” of both Israelis and Palestinians and that “unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration, sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
The letter called for the launching of “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel” of agreements with Washington for alleged illegal use of U.S.-sold weapons against Palestinians. Signers requested “regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.” While some of these people have sent notes to Congress criticizing specific Israeli efforts, this is the first time they have questioned the $3 billion annual U.S. aid package to Israel.
During the summer, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected divestment from companies doing business with Israeli security forces in the West Bank by a 333-331 vote. A similar call was defeated more decisively at a Methodist assembly in May. In September, the Quaker group, Friends Fiduciary Corporation, voted to remove a French and an American company from its financial portfolio over what it said was the companies’ involvement with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian areas.
But some Jewish leaders are hopeful that a groundswell of local support will convince the national leaders to reverse their course of action. According to Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, and a co-chair of the roundtable, “Liberal Protestants live side by side with Jews, and rabbis have relationships with local ministers. The overwhelming majority of Americans and American Christians understand that Israel must defend itself and that Israel is not an aggressor, that Israel is on the front lines of terrorism and has modeled how to create a balance between security and concern for the individual rights of all of the inhabitants.”
The University of California, Irvine student senate passed a non-binding resolution November 13 asking the school to divest from eight companies doing business with Israel, accusing the Jewish state of “apartheid.” The resolution has not yet earned the approval of the UC Irvine student government’s executive board, a body that would pass on the resolution to the school’s administration. If UC Irvine adopts legislation recommending divestment from companies doing business with Israel, it would be the first California campus to do so. Associated Students-UC Irvine (ASUCI) voted 16-0 to request divestment from Caterpillar, Cement Roadstones Holding, Cemex, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Raytheon, Sodastream, and L-3 Communications, saying that those companies “have promoted and been complicit” in “ongoing human rights violations systematically committed by the Israeli government.”
A published statement from UCI rejected the idea that the vote would be binding: “Such divestment is not the policy of the campus, nor is it the policy of the University of California. The UC Board of Regents’ policy requires this action only when the U.S. government deems it necessary. No such declaration has been made regarding Israel. In the spirit and practice of active engagement with all peoples of that region, UCI has been extremely pleased with recent global collaboration between leaders and researchers here and those at top universities around the world, including Israel. The campus looks forward to continued constructive exchanges that benefit our students, faculty and community.”
According to Shalom Elcott, president and CEO of Jewish Federation & Family Services (JFFS), “For the past five years, the Orange County Jewish community, the Consul General of Israel and the UCI administration have built close relations and strong academic ties to Israel that benefit UCI students, faculty and the community. That work will not be undermined by divisive efforts that constitute an abuse of student representation and are contrary to the interest of students who wish to partake in the valuable opportunities that global engagement brings.”
Great Britain saved nearly 10,000 children from Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechosolovakia before World War II. Known as Kindertransport, the operation enabled the children to grow up and lead useful lives as British citizens or to emigrate to the U.S. and Israel. Each beneficiary of Kindertransport has a powerful story – about leaving one’s family, about guilt over those left behind, about trying to learn a new language and assimilate into a vastly different culture.
In 1989, the 50th anniversary of the operation, the Kindertransport Association (KTA) was born out of the desire for Kinderstransport “children” living in the U.S. and Canada to connect with one another. Since 1990 the organization has held conferences that include multiple generations. In November, the 74th anniversary of the Kindertransports, the conference was held at the Irvine Marriott. The coordinator was Jeffrey Wolff of Mission Viejo, a second-generation KTA member.
For more details on this event, see our website, www.ocjewishlife.com.