‘Here We Are Again’: Divestment and Jewish-Presbyterian Relations

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) committee recommends divestment from three companies doing business with Israel, continuing the church’s back-an-forth stance on the issue since 2004.

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Click photo to download. Caption: An IDF Caterpillar D9—a machine that comes under fire when the Presbyterian Church considers divestment companies doing business with Israel. Credit: MathKnight.

It may only be a recommendation by a committee, but the recent call to divest from three companies doing business with Israel is leaving the state of Jewish-Presbyterian relations in limbo.

Reigniting a seven-year-long controversy, the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recommended on Sept. 12 that the church divest from Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard. At its 219th  General Assembly in 2010, PCUSA denounced Caterpillar “for profiting from the non-peaceful use of its products in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.”

Hewlett-Packard, meanwhile, “sells hardware to the Israeli Navy that is used for its operational communications, logistics and planning including the ongoing naval blockade of the Gaza Strip,” according to a report from MRTI’s Sept. 9 meeting.

PCUSA’s dance with divestment dates back to 2004, when a General Assembly resolution called to “initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel,” adding that Israeli occupation had “proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict.” A 2006 General Assembly resolution acknowledged that 2004 “caused hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community,” and 2008’s assembly pledged to “not over-identify with the realities of the Israelis or Palestinians.”

However, with this month’s renewed call to divest, Ethan Felson—vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the organization’s expert in divestment—couldn’t help but think “here we are again.”

“This is a critical time in our relationship with the Presbyterian church and [the divestment recommendation] has broad implications, because a wide swath of Jewish organizations was told that the church was embracing a model of reconciliation, that it didn’t want a future of conflict, indeed that, it was finding a new way of being a church,” Felson told JointMedia News Service.

Though the MRTI committee doesn’t speak for the entire church, Felson said “What we’re waiting to hear is the church say that it rejects the divisive stance of divestment and the anti-Zionism and indeed anti-Jewish sentiments that run rampart through the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network.”

Underscoring the significance of Jewish-Presbyterian relations, Pastor John Wimberly of the Western Presbyterian Church cited polling data from August 2009 in which only 3 percent of respondents said “maintaining positive relations between Presbyterians and members of the U.S. Jewish community” was “not at all important.” Additionally, he said the last three Presbyterian general assemblies have “rejected specific entrees to divest.”

But while views of a committee like the MRTI are minority opinions as far as the church community goes—and on the surface shouldn’t carry significant weight come time for the 220th PCUSA assembly in June 2012—Wimberly told JointMedia News Service that, “Obviously a small group can make very convincing arguments and sway a majority.” MRTI’s impact is seen in between general assemblies, Wimberly said, in areas such as determining who gets on what church committees, who is named to staff positions including Middle East missionaries, and lobbying.

Presbyterians for Middle East Peace said in a statement that the group was “saddened” by the MRTI’s divestment recommendation because it will “increase the divisions within the PCUSA on how we can most effectively be peacemakers in the Middle East” and “surely offend and hurt our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community with whom we are in close dialogue.” Additionally, a desire for divestment “fails to acknowledge the 2008 action of the General Assembly that instructed Presbyterians not to over-identify with one side in this tragic struggle,” the group said.

Most often, critics have pointed to the Israel Defense Forces’ use of Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozers to raze Palestinian homes. Rev. John Hougen, an MRTI member, said in the committee’s Sept. 12 announcement that the recommendations “are a statement about the companies, not Israelis or Palestinians.” Hougen added that “human rights violations should be opposed in any part of the world.”

However, Wimberly noted that Caterpillar sells military equipment to a multitude of military organizations, and the bulldozers are used similarly in Iraq, Afghanistan and China. “Why aren’t [MRTI members] focusing on that rather than Israel?” he asked.

The answer, Wimberly said, is that MRTI’s divestment agenda is “not about the companies”—contrary to Hougen’s assertion.

“It’s about Israel. It’s an attempt to punish Israel,” Wimberly said, adding that there is “nothing intrinsically wrong with a bulldozer in the sense that there’s something wrong with a cigarette.”

Caterpillar’s statement on divestment says the company issubject to “strict anti-boycott requirements under two U.S. laws—the Tax Reform Act of 1976 and the Export Administration Act.” The laws, Caterpillar says, are intended to stop U.S. companies from participating in boycotts not sanctioned by the U.S. government, and result in penalties including “significant civil and criminal penalties and prohibitions on future exporting privileges and denial of tax benefits.”

Felson explained that because MRTI is “asking Caterpillar and other companies to do something they know would be illegal, boycotting a friendly nation, it gives the lie to this as a human rights appeal.”

“What it is, is using three American companies, that employ American workers, as a proxy to act out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the church,” Felson said.

Caterpillar says that, “We have compassion for all persons affected by the political strife in the Middle East and support a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The company says its products “are designed to improve quality of life,” but acknowledges that it “cannot monitor the use of every piece of its equipment around the world.”

Jim Dugan, a spokesman for Caterpillar, told JointMedia News Service that the company’s machinery being used by the Israel Ministry of Defense today is actually provided to Israel not directly by Caterpillar, but rather by the U.S. government under the Foreign Military Sales program. The U.S. program is a “government-to-government method for selling U.S. defense equipment, services, and training,” according to its website.

Armor plating—which makes the bulldozers bulletproof—and further “specialized work” on the machines isn’t performed by Caterpillar, Dugan said, but instead by third-party vendors. While the bulldozers are called into question as “armored offensive machines,” he said, a simple glance at the production line at Caterpillar wouldn’t distinguish which machines are being used for foreign military operations and which ones are going to a construction firm in Iowa.

MRTI’s Sept. 12 recommendations cited “seven years of apparently futile corporate engagement with Caterpillar.” Additionally, MRTI described “unproductive dialogue” with Hewlett-Packard, and said Motorola was “unresponsive to all efforts by religious shareholders to engage in serious discussions about its involvement in non-peaceful pursuits.”Dugan said Caterpillar has had “lengthy, ongoing dialogue on this topic” with religious groups and NGOs, though he didn’t specify which ones.

But as far as the Middle East is concerned, the dialogue between companies like Caterpillar and the church is irrelevant, according to Felson.

“No Israeli or Palestinian leader is going to find out that a church sold its shares in a company and say ‘This changes my negotiating strategy,’” Felson said. “It just draws people further to the side.”

Rather, he said, the real impact lies in how divestment shifts the course of Jewish-Presbyterian relations in the U.S.

“We know the companies aren’t going to respond to this,” Felson said. “What it does is it poisons the well for interfaith relations here at home. And, the time is now for prominent church leaders to demonstrate that they really do want a different path.”

Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.

Posted on November 27, 2011 and filed under Features, U.S..