Shmuly Yanklowitz

A Public Response to a Presbyterian Reverend Supporting Divestment from Israel

July 31st, 2014

Dear Reverend,

Thank you for your kind wishes and very thoughtful, detailed letter regarding the Presbyterian decision to divest. The past few weeks have very been difficult for the Jewish community, not just here in Arizona, not just in America or Israel, but also all over the world. Recent events have made Jews around the world cry out to G-d and desperately wonder why anti-Semitism is still so prevalent throughout the world. I have recently found myself asking G-d why our plight is so heavy. In trying times like these, your words of support are needed and highly valued.

Indeed, in these trying times, interfaith cooperation must be embraced to a more substantial extent than usual. No matter religious denomination or sect, the value of each human life is cherished above all else and we must partner to preserve the sanctity and dignity of each individual. The conversations needed to sustain these bonds are resolute. In a community as diverse as the Greater Phoenix metropolitan area, it is important we never lose sight of the fact that we are more connected than ever before. It is our support for each other that keeps us strong and what makes the future so promising for our community members and congregants; indeed, cooperation is what ensures that values such as respect and love for all are not just being preached, but adopted.

I appreciate your concern regarding Jewish sensibilities on the matter of the Presbyterian Church’s choice to selectively divest from three American companies (Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard) who do business with the State of Israel. This has been a delicate, geo-political issue for some time now and one that has affected me deeply as one who has lived in Israel, has family and friends in Israel, and experiences my destiny as interconnected with the one and only Jewish state. Although I empathize with the difficulty involved in making this decision, I must respectfully, yet adamantly, disagree with the Church’s position on the matter. Israel is the locus of the Jewish soul. Every Jew yearns for a peaceful Israel, for a time when the Messiah will come and redeem the perfidies that befall humankind. Unfortunately, our redemption has not yet occurred, so we must work diligently to better the world we have. Subversion of the nation of Israel is the wrong approach. This crisis calls for engagement from all parties involved and concerned – we must listen, speak, invest, lead, advocate, and pray – not disengage.

I always understood the prophecy of “A time for war, a time for peace” as meaning two different time periods. However, I realize now that during exceptionally difficult times, our commitments to war and to peace must be held simultaneously in our hearts and demonstrated in our actions. We must obliterate all weaponry and infrastructures of war that pose mortal threats to the vulnerable Jewish state with unequivocal victory, while ensuring that we achieve these essential objectives with minimal casualties. At the same time we must long for and plant the seeds for peace. I would be skeptical of any leadership only calling for one, either war or peace, and dismissing the deepest pool of our cherished moral and spiritual conscience. Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of modern Israel, taught that lasting peace is achieved through responsible conflict. It is a tragic realization but we must live both as pragmatists and dreamers, lovers of our own and of the other, builders of today and of tomorrow. With teary eyes to the heavens and eyes to the earth, we pray and we defend.

What the Jewish people need from Christian allies is support amidst our continued oppression and alienation, not more kicks while we’re down. Divestment is a remarkably harmful action in this situation. While in theory, divestment seeks to add a punitive element to sovereign states that behave against the will of human rights, Israel has always felt threatened by hostile forces within and outside of its borders. The leaders of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement have placed much focus on all the perceived evils of the world’s lone Jewish state (without a complete understanding of the context). Those urging divestment all too often fail to recognize the moral blindness of other countries, whether it’s Burmese indifference to their Muslim citizens, or Russia for gay rights, China and North Korea for blatant human rights violations, genocidal activity in the Congo, or the mass slaughters in Syria. The list is too long to write out fully here, which is itself a sad state of affairs. While I am not attempting to excuse some of the unfortunate tragedies that have occurred during this conflict by pointing to others, I merely aim to contextualize it. My point is, my holy brother, that the singular concentration of the professed moral failures of Israel is injurious to the character of the Jewish people and is unfair.

Of course, every nation (Israel included) makes moral mistakes. It is the tragic inevitability of nation-state building and the responsibility of every government to protect its citizens. The Jewish people are working to own our unique challenges while also striving with all of our efforts to build the model righteous state. Israel is a nation birthed from the horrors of war and genocide. We, as Jews, know better than anyone the agonies of oppression, violence, and death. That is why we take such pride in the monumental progress in Israel and how we are a light in the Middle East for human rights for citizens and minority groups and how take great pains to lead a remarkably ethical commitment to just warfare. We are profoundly troubled by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and we are working with the UN to address the tragedy. We encourage the Presbyterian Church to engage in solution-creation, not disengage from the state.

Furthermore, these words of John Knox ring very true to me: “You cannot antagonize and influence at the same time.” Sadly the Jewish-Presbyterian relationship has been damaged due to this divestment campaign. However, the Jewish people will survive even amidst various forms of hateful counterforces. The Jewish people are eternal, regardless of all historical persecution. Sadly, only 70 years after the Holocaust, religious groups continue to join the forces of evil attacking the Jewish people, often in disguise by attacking Israel with an ill-informed double standard.

I am grateful that the Church “continues to affirm Israel’s right to exist” as well as the reiterated “commitment to interfaith dialogue and partnership.” As someone who is deeply committed and involved in the field of pluralistic engagement, I am heartened to read of your steadfastness to community relations across the spectrum of faiths. We have much work to do here in Arizona and I look forward to continuing to partner with you to create a more just state.

I would like to offer you a bracha, a blessing, for strength in the face of adversity, for light in times of darkness, and for moral fortitude in times of apathy. Please know that when Christian groups experience oppression or hatred of any kind, the Jewish community will stand in solidarity by their side.

Many sweet blessings,  Shmuly


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

Valley Beit Midrash

Phoenix, Arizona

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.