CHRISTIAN CHURCHES have been strong advocates for social justice overseas in the past, whether it be Poland, South Africa, El Salvador, or the Philippines. But each situation required different tactics. The complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute invite a patient, subtle engagement.
Instead, some churches are planning to threaten divestment of stock in businesses that assist the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. This is counterproductive.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) announced earlier this month that it would insist that four US companies stop doing business that it considers helpful to the Israeli occupation. (Another company was singled out for supposedly being a conduit for Arab terrorist money.) If the companies do not agree to stop the objectionable business, the church would consider divesting itself of their stock. Millions of dollars in pension funds are at stake. This initiative is reminiscent of the successful campaign to divest from companies that did business in apartheid South Africa, though the church denies it is drawing a parallel. Jewish groups in the United States are outraged, and understandably so. Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles called the action ''functionally anti-Semitic."
The divestment campaign by the American churches isn't prejudiced, but it is naive. Any action that implicitly compares Israel to apartheid South Africa is bound to cause offense among many Jews. It is also wrong. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, heightened by the refusal of either side until recently to acknowledge the other's legitimacy, and by its entanglement in Mideast power politics, is far more complicated than the Afrikaners' attempt to maintain control over an overwhelmingly black society.
The Presbyterian action appears to be part of a worrisome trend. The United Church of Christ voted to consider various forms of economic leverage in the Mideast conflict last month. The Episcopal Church has begun a study on ''what corporate actions might be appropriate." The World Council of Churches last February encouraged its member churches to apply economic pressure.
These churches ought to heed the example of M. Thomas Shaw, Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts and a supporter of Palestinian rights. He rejects divestment, especially now, when Israel is pulling out of Gaza and Palestinians have chosen moderate leadership. ''Because the economies of Israel and Palestine are so closely intertwined, divestment is actually counterproductive for the Palestinian people," he said in a May statement.
Rather than divesting from Israel, a better strategy for American churches concerned about peace in the Mideast would be to invest in the future of a Palestinian state.