In an experiment that Moderator Jim Key hopes could be a new model for discerning difficult topics at General Assembly, delegates Friday morning heard a panel discussion on a controversial business resolution related to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s future investment in corporations that do business in Palestine.
Facilitated by John Sarrouf of the Public Conversations Project, which fosters constructive dialogue in difficult debates, the discussion was not a debate but featured four panelists who described the personal values that underlie their positions on the business resolution, on which delegates will vote on Saturday.
The UUA no longer owns stock in corporations referenced in the original business resolution, which was drafted by the UUs for Justice in the Middle East (UUJME). Amended language, to be offered at a miniassembly Friday at 4:45 pm, will modify the resolution to direct the UUA to in the future screen out investments “in corporations complicit in the violation of human rights including Palestinian rights,” according to a flyer from the UUJME.
In launching the discussion, Sarrouf acknowledged the difficulty of the topic, and said, “We know behind every belief there is a story, and behind every story is a person.” He asked the panelists and audience to see each other as people in community as those on stage told their personal stories.
Farrell Brody, a UU member of Jewish Voice for Peace of Central Ohio, who supports the resolution, said that in 1957, he was driving a Caterpillar tractor on a kibbutz next to the Gaza strip where he saw poor Palestinian farmers and recognized the power imbalance that continues to exist. He also met renowned Jewish theologian Martin Buber, who urged him to do something about what he saw.
Former UUA Moderator Denny Davidoff said her parents were first-generation Americans who impressed on her the need for a Jewish homeland, where Jews would be safe from persecution. “I believe in the right of my Jewish people to have an undisputed homeland in Israel,” she said.
Dana Ashrawi, a lifelong UU and member of the board of UUJME, said she is married to a Palestinian and has visited Israel and the occupied territories several times. “These experiences have informed me to feel we need not profit from companies that benefit from the human rights abuses I have seen,” she said. To loud applause, Davidoff said that she realized, as the discussion progressed, that the real culprits are corporations and the greed of corporate America that “is holding all of us hostage.”
The panelists all agreed that they feel pulled by competing values and recognize the complexity of the issue. Ashrawi said she believes strongly in a two-state solution. The Rev. Jay Wolin, treasurer of UUs for Jewish Awareness, who is against the resolution, said that Palestinians are suffering, which “pains me.” Although he said he disagrees with many of the actions of the Israeli government, he added, “How do we find peace so both Jewish and Arab Israelis can live in peace?”
Davidoff said what worried her about the resolution is that it is part of a greater movement, the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement, whose leaders at the top “do not in fact recognize the right of Israel to exist.” She said that at the UUJME booth the day before, "there were fellow UUs who tried to persuade me Jews had no right to a homeland in Israel." Visibly emotional, she added, "It was like being raped. It was horrible."
Toward the end of the hour, Davidoff said she was sad about the applause for one side or the other during the discussion. “It’s not what we were going to do. It makes me sad. Everything [with GA] is a debate.” She then asked for ten seconds of silence.
After the silent reflection, Ashrawi said she agreed with Davidoff on the issue of applause and cheering, and suggested that perhaps during Saturday’s debate before the vote, delegates could also refrain from such outbursts. “We are all one association, and the clapping and applause really is not needed.”