Joel Mowbray

Early in 2006, pro-Palestinian activists around the world were downright giddy at the momentum behind their efforts to brand Israel an apartheid state and “divest” accordingly. At the year’s midpoint, however, the political cause that had looked so vibrant is now on the ropes following the defeat dealt it by Presbyterians at the church’s bi-annual conference last month.

Meeting in Birmingham, the 500+ voting members of the Protestant denomination overwhelmingly disavowed the previous assembly’s enthusiastic embrace of initiating “a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” But while the Presbyterians’ ostensible about-face is a huge blow for those wishing to demonize Israel, the issue is far from dead within the church—or, for that matter, with other Christian denominations across the United States.

Why is divestment only down, not out? The answer is best understood through an encounter I had with an elderly Presbyterian woman working the pro-divestment booth in Birmingham.

Her voice falling to a whisper, the white-haired woman trembled as she recounted the horrors she had heard about life in Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. “These poor children were trapped inside their aluminum house for nine months. They couldn’t go to school, they couldn’t even go outside.” Her voice halted. She cried. She tried to compose herself, but she couldn’t right away.

There was no denying her sincerity. And there’s no denying that for most Palestinians, life is not what it was just six years ago. No sane American would willingly trade places with a typical Palestinian. But nine months trapped inside an “aluminum house,” not even able to go outside? That would certainly be plausible—in Beirut in the 1980’s, but not the West Bank in the 21st century. Maybe for a few days during a military incursion, for example, but not for nine months straight.

Simply put, it’s a fiction. An obvious one, at that. But not to the sweet septuagenarian. She believed it to her core.

Deciding to test her actual knowledge of the Middle East, I asked her what year the “occupation” started. There are generally two possible answers: 1) “1967,” which is when Israel took control of Gaza and the West Bank, or 2) “1948,” which is when Israel was created. The latter response means that “occupation” occurs with the mere existence of the Jewish state.

When faced with the question, she fumbled a bit, reached for a piece of literature, and then declared, “Oh, in 1946.” Though she had traveled to the Middle East “several times” by her own count, she sorely lacked even a basic grasp of the facts.

If only she were alone.

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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