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.

Keith Srakocic/AP
People listen to a session of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) on Thursday, July 5, in Pittsburgh. By a two-vote margin the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) declined on Thursday to divest from companies with operations in Israel.

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 Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank.

The 333-to-331 vote at the PCUSA’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 “positive investment” in Palestinian enterprises.

Proponents of divestment wanted the PCUSA to drop the church’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.

“We’re disappointed for Palestinians who continue to struggle against the occupation,” says Jeffrey DeYoe, a Fort Myers, Fla., pastor who helped lead calls for divestment. “We continue to commit ourselves to their struggle.”

Thursday’s vote came as pressure mounted from pro-Israel Jewish groups. Efforts to boycott, divest, and sanction constitute “a genuine threat to conflict resolution” in the region, according to a July 5 letter from Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the pro-Israel group J Street.

“We’re definitely pleased about the vote,” says Rachel Lerner, vice president of J Street’s education fund and an advocate at the PCUSA’s General Assembly. “It says they want to engage, but to do so in a positive manner.”

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 firm’s activity in the occupied West Bank. But denominations have proven reluctant to take similar steps.

“Rank-and-file Presbyterians and the American public do not have a full awareness of this issue,” the Rev. Mr. DeYoe says. “It 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.”

Presbyterian activists were early adopters of efforts to apply financial pressure in a bid to end the Israeli occupation. They’ve been bringing pressure, both in corporate board rooms and at biannual general assemblies, since 2004. Hence, Thursday’s vote marks a setback for a pillar of the interdenominational movement, as well as a step forward for those who see “positive investment” as a better way.

“The administration of the Palestinian prime minister has worked hard to generate foreign investment, as has Secretary of State [Hillary Rodham] Clinton,” said an e-mail from John Wimberly, a steering committee member for Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, which opposes divestment. “Their efforts indicate that investment is a very positive strategy.”

Divestment activists, however, are not convinced.

“ ’Positive investment’ is an investment in the occupation,” DeYoe says. “There’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.”

Ongoing calls for divestment cast a pall over Christian-Jewish dialogue, according to critics of the movement.

“It creates a hostile environment for relationships within Jewish-Christian dialogue,” says Ruth Langer, associate director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. “There is a latent anti-Semitism in much of these [divestment] discussions in mainline groups…. That’s hugely concerning.”

On Friday the PCUSA General Assembly voted in favor of a boycott of "all Israeli products coming from occupied Palestinian Territories."

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