Churches raise pressure on firms in Israel

In bid to end Israel's control of Palestinian territories, Presbyterian USA takes next step in divestment threat.

One by one, mainline Protestant denominations with close ties to the Holy Land are taking controversial steps aimed at influencing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

While the churches have engaged in Middle East issues for decades, the decision of some to begin using economic leverage to press for an end to the Israeli occupation has roiled the US Jewish community and some within their own church ranks. The initiative to consider divestment began with a vote by Presbyterians last year, but has been gathering momentum as various churches debate the issue in national conventions.

On Friday, the Presbyterian Church USA reignited concerns when its investment committee named five US corporations it intends to push to reform their practices. The effort could eventually lead to divesting from the church's $8 billion portfolio. [Editor's note: The original version undervalued the Presbyterian church's portfolio.]

The committee said the firms contribute to the ongoing conflict through support for the Israeli occupation and settlements, construction of the separation barrier on the West Bank, or facilitating violent acts against civilians.

"This is not an immediate divestment, nor a blanket divestment against Israel as a whole - I hope that gets heard," says the Rev. Marthame Sanders, a Presbyterian spokesman.

The companies include ITT Industries and United Technologies, which supply communication equipment and helicopters to the Israeli military; Caterpillar, whose equipment is used in Palestinian home demolition and the building of settlements; and Motorola, which provides military wireless communications and invests in Israeli cellphone firms, which are alleged to be sidestepping license requirements and undermining Palestinian businesses.

In an apparent attempt to be evenhanded, the committee also named a fifth company, Citigroup, for providing money-transfer services to charities that were accused of being fronts for terrorist groups. Citigroup has called the charge against the company "an outrage."

The announcement sparked a strong reaction from Jewish leaders.

"The use of economic leverage doesn't bring Israelis or Palestinians one bit closer to peace, and only poisons the well for interfaith relations here," warned Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The step was not unexpected, as the divestment brouhaha has been developing for months.

During its general assembly beginning Monday, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is to vote on a "Churchwide Strategy for Engagement in Israel and Palestine." While no action is planned on a specific divestment proposal, "the assembly can change that," says John Brooks, ELCA spokesman.

In July, the United Church of Christ (UCC) voted to consider various forms of economic leverage. The Episcopal Church has begun a study on "what corporate actions might be appropriate." And the global Anglican Consultative Council and the World Council of Churches have encouraged economic pressure on Israel.

Such pressure "is an idea whose time has come," says Mr. Sanders. The churches see the occupation as the main stumbling block in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mainline churches have supported Israel since 1948 and strongly condemn terrorism. Yet close links to Palestinian Christian communities also give them an intimate knowledge of life in the occupied territories. The Lutheran World Federation, for example, operates the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem, which serves Palestinian families, many of whom can no longer reach the hospital because of the security barrier.

Many churches, including those that are not pursuing divestment, express concern about the barrier - that it is confiscating some Palestinian land and cutting people off from schools, churches, and employment. Last month, the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) passed resolutions calling for dismantling the wall.

"While we realize the barrier has provided safety for some people, it has provided a huge amount of suffering for others," says William Chris Hobgood, the Disciples' outgoing president.

American Jewish leaders dispute the idea that the occupation is the problem.

"If the occupation ends under the present conditions, it's a suicide pact, as many terrorists want no Israel," says Mr. Felson. "There must be commitment to stop the incitements, stop teaching children the norms of violent hate."

Jewish leaders also argue that divestment not only raises the specter of past economic boycotts against Jews but also simply will not work.

"The perspective is that Israel alone is powerful and the Palestinians are weak, so it's appropriate leverage" in their behalf, Felson adds. "The mistake is that the psyche of the Israeli is one of isolation and feeling threatened ... so divestment ends up being just another fly in the ointment and won't change any policies."

Churches, meanwhile, are counting on it working. Sanders notes churches along with others successfully convinced Talisman Energy Co. to cut ties with Sudan's government, which committed human rights abuses during its long war with the southern part of the country.

But they may yet have to contend with some faithful within their denominations who urge a halt to the divestment effort.

Yet mainline and Jewish leaders at the national level have begun a dialogue grappling with their divergent perspectives. Hoping to revitalize their historical relationship on civil rights and social issues in the US, they are trying to work through differences and find a way to pursue their joint aim: a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living in peace and security.

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