Presbyterians reject call to divest over Israel's West Bank occupation
By a two-vote margin, the Presbyterian Chuch (U.S.A.) declined Thursday to divest funds from three firms whose products help Israel enforce occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. Pro-Israel Jewish groups had warned against such a step.
By the thinnest of margins, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Thursday joined other mainline Protestant denominations in rejecting a call for divestment from companies whose products help enforce Israelâ€™s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank.
The 333-to-331 vote at the PCUSAâ€™s General Assembly in Pittsburgh averted a showdown with Jewish groups, who had warned divestment could have had a chilling effect on interfaith dialogue. It also aligned the 1.9 million-member PCUSA with the United Methodist Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which have rejected divestment efforts in their respective denominations. Each has opted instead to pursue â€śpositive investmentâ€ť in Palestinian enterprises.
Proponents of divestment wanted the PCUSA to drop the churchâ€™s $20 million combined stake in Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard. The vote capped eight years of talks with the companies, which activists say were unsuccessful.
â€śWeâ€™re disappointed for Palestinians who continue to struggle against the occupation,â€ť says Jeffrey DeYoe, a Fort Myers, Fla., pastor who helped lead calls for divestment. â€śWe continue to commit ourselves to their struggle.â€ť
Thursdayâ€™s vote came as pressure mounted from pro-Israel Jewish groups. Efforts to boycott, divest, and sanction constitute â€śa genuine threat to conflict resolutionâ€ť in the region, according to a July 5 letter from Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the pro-Israel group J Street.
â€śWeâ€™re definitely pleased about the vote,â€ť says Rachel Lerner, vice president of J Streetâ€™s education fund and an advocate at the PCUSAâ€™s General Assembly. â€śIt says they want to engage, but to do so in a positive manner.â€ť
To date, the divestment movement championed by mainline Protestant activists has generated few results. In June, pension manager TIAA-CREF announced it was dropping Caterpillar from its Social Choice Fund after a benchmark index cited the firmâ€™s activity in the occupied West Bank. But denominations have proven reluctant to take similar steps.
â€śRank-and-file Presbyterians and the American public do not have a full awareness of this issue,â€ť the Rev. Mr. DeYoe says. â€śIt takes time to share the stories and to make clear that there are human rights violations and great injustices happening in Palestine. This just takes a long, long time to develop.â€ť
Presbyterian activists were early adopters of efforts to apply financial pressure in a bid to end the Israeli occupation. Theyâ€™ve been bringing pressure, both in corporate board rooms and at biannual general assemblies, since 2004. Hence, Thursdayâ€™s vote marks a setback for a pillar of the interdenominational movement, as well as a step forward for those who see â€śpositive investmentâ€ť as a better way.
â€śThe administration of the Palestinian prime minister has worked hard to generate foreign investment, as has Secretary of State [Hillary Rodham] Clinton,â€ť said an e-mail from John Wimberly, a steering committee member for Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, which opposes divestment. â€śTheir efforts indicate that investment is a very positive strategy.â€ť
Divestment activists, however, are not convinced.
â€ś â€™Positive investmentâ€™ is an investment in the occupation,â€ť DeYoe says. â€śThereâ€™s no place for the Palestinian people to market their goods because the Israeli military prevents that. So in terms of positive investment in the Palestinian people, the occupation makes that impossible.â€ť
Ongoing calls for divestment cast a pall over Christian-Jewish dialogue, according to critics of the movement.
â€śIt creates a hostile environment for relationships within Jewish-Christian dialogue,â€ť says Ruth Langer, associate director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. â€śThere is a latent anti-Semitism in much of these [divestment] discussions in mainline groupsâ€¦. Thatâ€™s hugely concerning.â€ť
On Friday the PCUSA General Assembly voted in favor of a boycott of "all Israeli products coming from occupied Palestinian Territories."