Presbyterian Church rejects Israel divestment in narrow vote

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Click photo to download. Caption: A Caterpillar bulldozer amid construction of the Israeli West Bank security fence. Credit: Justin McIntosh.

The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) General Assembly on July 5 voted 333-331 against a resolution to divest from Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Motorola Solutions Inc. because those companies profit “from non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine.”

While Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) advocates claimed that the three companies benefit from Israeli “occupation” by selling bulldozers and surveillance technology to the Israel Defense Forces, Jewish groups warned that passing the divestment resolution would have been a damaging blow to Jewish-Christian relations.

In advance of the vote, more than 22,000 Jews signed a “Letter of Hope” opposing Presbyterian divestment, while 1,300 rabbis signed sent a separate letter to PCUSA for the same purpose. Then, after almost a week of deliberation at its general assembly in Pittsburgh, Pa.—held from June 30 to July 7—PCUSA rejected a BDS proposal for the fourth time in eight years.

“It’s an important milestone that the [Presbyterian] general assembly has once again recognized that divestment is not an appropriate path for peacemaking,” Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the organization’s expert on interfaith relations, told JNS.org.

Felson said the divestment resolution’s defeat was “remarkable” considering the support the measure had within the Presbyterian Church.

“The major institutions of the denomination were very intensely behind this divestment resolution—committees, councils, caucuses, even the General Assembly Mission Council,” he said. “So that makes it even more remarkable that when presented to the full general assembly, divestment didn’t fly.”

PCUSA’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) had recommended that the church divest its holdings in Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard, claiming its engagement with those companies was no longer productive.

The general assembly voted 333-331 (with two abstentions) to nullify the proposal supporting MRTI’s recommendation and replace it with a minority report that rejected divestment and stressed “positive investment.” In a follow-up vote, the replacement resolution passed 369-320 (with eight abstentions).

Rev. William Harter—pastor of the Church of Falling Spring in Chambersburg, Pa., and an activist in Jewish-Christian relations—told JNS.org that the Presbyterian Church “sought to find a way to be faithful to both the Palestinian community and the Jewish community.”

“We can be faithful to both,” Harter said.

Any other outcome in the divestment vote “would have put us on one side of the issue and removed our capacity to be effective bridges builders for peace,” Harter said. With the results, the church “reaffirmed its longstanding commitment to the rights and aspirations of both peoples in their lands,” he said.

Pastor John Wimberly—leader of the Washington, DC-based Western Presbyterian Church and an activist with Presbyterians for Middle East Peace—told JNS.org that divestment would have been “a step too far” for the general assembly.

“I think there are lots of people in the Presbyterian Church who have lofty concerns about the state of the Palestinians, but they also are pretty pragmatic and they understand that labeling Israel as kind of the sole problem here is just not consistent with the facts,” Wimberly said.

Kenneth Bialkin, chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League, told JNS.org he was “gratified” that the Presbyterian general assembly “did the right thing” in rejecting the divestment motion, noting that BDS is both anti-American and anti-Semitic.

“However,” Bialkin said, “our satisfaction is marred by the [Presbyterian] resolution approving a boycott of goods manufactured by Jews living in the West Bank. Any such distinction is unacceptable and, sadly, reflects a residual anti-Semitism. The general concept of boycotting Jews or Jewish products has been a staple of anti-Semitic behavior for centuries.”

Felson said a “stunning” lesson from the latest Presbyterian divestment episode is “how completely submerged the church has allowed legitimate conversation about Israel’s security needs to become.”

“There are multiple narratives in the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict,” Felson said. “General assemblies seem to appreciate that. The Middle East committees and social witness committees of the church seem invested in that conversation not happening, and we know that there are countless very responsible leaders in the Presbyterian Church across the country that understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be reduced to a caricature of good and evil.”

The Methodist Church had voted down a smiliar divestment resolution in May. Responding to the Presbyterian vote, the Israel Palestine Mission Network, a pro-Palestinian Presbyterian group, said in a statement that it would continue to “alleviate the suffering of Palestinians and to help bring peace and justice to Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Support for the divestment resolution extended to Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), which showed up at the general assembly to lobby in favor of the measure.

“It’s too early to know what is going to happen, but I have been moved to tears on multiple occasions as I saw authentic recognition of Palestinian experience and deep commitment to justice for all people by the Presbyterian Church,” JVP’s Rabbi Alissa Wise said after the vote. “This is a historic moment in the struggle for dignity and justice, and I commend the PCUSA for getting us this close to holding corporations accountable for profiting from the occupation.”

Wimberly said the pro-divestment campaign staged by young JVP activists was “a game-changer that almost tilted the [vote] in the other direction.”

“They were very articulate, they were very committed, and they made a big impression on people,” Wimberly said. “I think a lot of people began to say, ‘Well, maybe the Jewish community is not as united as we’ve been told by people like John Wimberly and by the 1,300 rabbis who signed this letter [opposing divestment].”

JNS.org columnist Jonathan Tobin wrote that JVP’s advocacy on behalf of the divestment resolution “lent a patina of Jewish legitimacy to the attempt to wage economic war on the Jewish state.”

“Such behavior is nothing less than aiding and abetting those seeking to destroy Israel,” Tobin wrote.

Tobin added that the vote’s narrow margin “indicates that the Israel-haters may prevail in the future.”

“While some in the organized Jewish world now treat inclusion and dialogue as almost a religious doctrine, the spectacle of Jewish Voices for Peace being given equal time in press accounts of the Presbyterian vote ought to be a wake-up call,” Tobin wrote. “There can be no place at the communal table for those Jews who act as a seal of approval for polices that cannot be distinguished from traditional anti-Jewish prejudice.”

Posted on July 9, 2012 and filed under News, U.S..