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Presbyterian Assembly defeats motion to divest by 2 votes, despite committee recommendation

U.S. Presbyterian Church committee votes in favor of Israel divestment resolution

Committee Vote at assembly in Pennsylvania could be a sign that discourse among U.S. Christians on Israel is about to change, final vote to be held in the coming days.

By Natasha Mozgovaya,  Ha’aretz
July 03, 2012

Following a lengthy and heated debate, committee 15 of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States voted in favor of a motion calling for divestment from three companies that do business with Israel.

Whether or not the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel is gaining traction is one of the hottest questions being asked among the most politically active members of the Jewish community – as many people take the issue to heart.

Israel supporters claim that the numbers of participants in the annual “Israel apartheid” week have not grown significantly, and that the American Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, despite regularly raising the topic of divesting from companies that “profit from Israeli occupation,” generally end up voting against it. The discourse is shifting – and not in Israel’s favor.

In 2008, the United Methodist Church (UMC) rejected an Israel divestment resolution. On May 2, the UMC general conference did it again, rejecting a resolution calling for divestment from three companies doing business with Israel (although the conference did adopt a measure recommending a boycott of products made in Israeli settlement).

This week, the topic was raised again in Pittsburgh, at the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Last time, the resolution didn’t even pass the committee level, let alone the general vote.

This time, something different happened. Committee 15 of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church voted in favor of a motion calling for divestment from Motorola, for providing surveillance equipment for Israeli settlements, Caterpillar, for providing bulldozers used for demolishing Palestinian houses, and Hewlett-Packard, for selling hardware used by Israel in its naval blockade of Gaza.

The motion also called for the church to increase investments in companies promoting peaceful pursuits. The final vote is expected at the general assembly later this week.

Rev. Dr. Walt Davis, Co-Chair of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, called the decision “an encouraging step”.

“We hope plenary voters will follow the lead of Committee 15 and the recommendations of the Mission Responsibility Through Investing committee and support divestment from these companies that are profiting from Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. It’s been a long and thorough process and it’s finally time for the church to stop profiting from the suffering the peoples of the Holy Land,” said Davis.

But during Monday evening’s debate, there were also concerns expressed over the possible impact of the decision on the relations with the Jewish community – and other sectors of the American Christian community.

Weeks before the general assembly opened on June 30, the proposal drew sharp criticism and warnings from Jewish American organizations, with the exception of those on the far left, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace. Over 1,300 Rabbis and over 12,000 American Jews signed letters to delegates of the biennial Presbyterian Church General Assembly, calling them to reject the “counterproductive” resolution.

In response, the Anti-Defamation League warned of the negative effect on the Jewish and American Christian relations. The American Jewish Committee called the resolutions generally put to votes every two years at the Presbyterian Church gatherings “an unfortunate tradition” meant to vilify Israel and adopt positions of “non-representative” Palestinian leaders.

Even Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of the leftist pro-Israeli lobby JStreet, wrote an article titled “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Put Allies at Odds.”

“In our view, the one-sided, extreme rhetoric that accompanies the global BDS movement makes a mutually agreeable solution more difficult to achieve, not less” wrote Ben-Ami, stressing that he hopes that PCUSA “will avoid this unproductive path,”

Ben-Ami added, “even the limited divestment approach under consideration by PCUSA falls under the rubric of larger BDS efforts to place blame entirely on one side of the conflict. Such an approach encourages not reconciliation, but polarization.”

Some members of the general assembly committee that discussed the motion in Pittsburg said they do not understand why the resolution is interpreted as a threat – they insisted it’s a moral issue, certainly not an anti-Semitic one, to stop pouring resources “into hurting people in another country.”

“There’s violence happening here. Someone is profiting from it. And we need to not be a part of that,” said one of the Committee members.

It’s not that Israel is running short of supporters among the American Christian community; in about two weeks, Christians United for Israel, a large Evangelical pro-Israel organization, will run its annual gathering in Washington DC. It’s likely that the Presbyterian divestment motion will draw quite a bit of criticism there.

Dr. Nahida Halaby Gordon, moderator of the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus, told “Haaretz” she feels there is a good chance for the vote to pass.

“Sometimes the plenary votes contrary to the vote in the committee, but the numbers in the committee vote in favor of the divestment were high in favor of the divestment (36 members of the committee voted in favor, 11 against NM) – almost three to one, I feel there is a big support for this.” If the vote fails, she says, she intends to come with other activists with the same message to the next GA. She stressed the decision “is not intended to demonize or delegitimize either Israel or Jewish community in this country.”

As for the possible result of the divestment decision – she says it’s not the hope it will seriously hurt these companies profits, but the message it sends.

“We are a small church, we don’t own that many stocks and the divestment will probably occur over a year or two – it’s not that we’ll sell tomorrow all our stocks. But it’s a moral message to these companies that you should not profit from the occupation.”

Presbyterian committee passes call for divestment from occupation profiteers
By Alex Kane, Mondoweiss
July 3, 2012 26

The Presbyterian committee on the Middle East has voted overwhelmingly in favor of divesting from three companies whose products are used by the Israeli military.

The vote this morning, with 36 in favor, 11 against and 1 abstention, is a boon to divestment activists who hope that the full Presbyterian general assembly will vote to divest. It removes the last barrier to a full plenary vote, which is set for Thursday or Friday of this week.

Here’s the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian church statement on the vote:

The Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is pleased to announce that today Committee 15 of the 220th General Assembly voted in favor of Resolution 15-11, which calls for divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions, over Israel’s use of their products in violations of Palestinian human rights. In voting to support divestment, committee members also recommended that the church reinvest divested funds into companies engaging in peaceful pursuits in Israel and Palestine.

“This is an encouraging step,” said Rev. Dr. Walt Davis, IPMN Education Co-Chair. “We hope plenary voters will follow the lead of Committee 15 and the recommendations of the Mission Responsibility Through Investing committee and support divestment from these companies that are profiting from Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. It’s been a long and thorough process and it’s finally time for the church to stop profiting from the suffering the peoples of the Holy Land.”

You can read the resolution here.

Caterpillar makes bulldozers that are outfitted by the Israeli military and used to destroy Palestinian homes. The corporation suffered a blow after the pension fund TIAA-CREF divested some holdings in the company last month following a decision by MSCI, a Wall Street investment service firm, to take Caterpillar off its index of “socially responsible” companies.

Hewlett-Packard and Motorola are also companies whose products are used to sustain Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank.

The vote came after a marathon session yesterday that featured heated debate over the measure.

The one abstention on the vote came from Ken Page, a Presbyterian commissioner from Florida who went on a Jewish Council for Public Affairs junket to Israel. He recused himself from all votes to avoid charges of bias.

Even before the vote, Israel lobbyists were fretting about the chances that the divestment resolution had. It appears their nervousness was justified.

Jewish Voice for Peace has a petition up encouraging Presbyterians to “vote your conscience on divestment from corporations profiting from the Occupation.”

JVP supports Presbyterian Divestment

Jewish Voice for Peace Statement on Presbyterian Church (USA) Vote on Boycott and Divestment from Companies Profiting from the Israeli Occupation

Jewish Voice for Peace
July 6, 2012

Jewish Voice for Peace is heartened by the strong show of opposition to the Israeli Occupation by the Presbyterian Church (USA). This morning, the General Assembly passed a resolution to boycott settlement goods with 71% of the vote, while last evening divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli Occupation was defeated by a razor thin margin of two votes.

Sydney Levy, Jewish Voice for Peace Director of Advocacy said, “I congratulate the Presbyterian Church (USA) for their decision today to boycott all goods made in Israeli settlements, just as the United Methodist Church did last month. This vote signifies the mainstreaming of boycott as a way to oppose illegal Israeli settlements, and the Israeli occupation overall. Clearly, the movement for justice for Israelis and Palestinians is growing.”

JVP is very proud to have been part of the broad coalition supporting Presbyterian efforts to boycott settlement products and divest from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation since 2004. We are especially proud of the members of our youth branch — Young, Jewish, and Proud (YJP) — and of our Rabbinical Council who were in Pittsburgh this year at the General Assembly meeting in support of the resolutions.

Despite being overwhelmingly out-resourced by large Jewish institutions with ties to the Israel lobby, our members succeeded in galvanizing a nearly identical amount of support for divestment as the opposition, and overwhelming support for boycott. This accomplishment is despite heavy-handed fear-mongering by the Jewish establishment that included threatening the future of interfaith cooperation and raising the specter of anti-semitism.

The truth is, growing numbers of Jewish groups and individual Jews of conscience support some form of boycott and/or divestment as a strategic tactic to pressure Israel to end the human rights abuses of the 45-year-old occupation of Palestinian people and land. This support is at least in part a response to over 20 years of U.S.-brokered negotiations that have not simply failed, but worse, have entrenched the Occupation by keeping pressure off of Israel while it has continued to massively expand illegal settlements and evict Palestinians from their homes.

Rabbi Alissa Wise, Jewish Voice for Peace Director of Campaigns, who was at the committee vote on divestment and boycott said: “I was moved to tears in Pittsburgh, as I saw deep recognition of Palestinian experience and deep commitment to justice for all people by the Presbyterian Church (USA). This was a historic moment in the struggle for dignity and justice, and I commend the Church for passing the boycott resolution and for getting this close to holding corporations accountable for profiting from the occupation.”

A near majority of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has shown the courage of true friendship, which sometimes requires facing difficult truths, and for that we are deeply grateful. We know that decades of working closely with Jewish communities in the U.S., engagement with Israel, and an ongoing commitment to understanding the Christian role in historical anti-Semitism, will continue and deepen. Jewish Voice for Peace members in communities across the United States certainly look forward to deepening those relationships, grounded in our joint understanding that Israel’s ongoing occupation makes a peaceful future for both Jews and Palestinians impossible.

Jewish Voice for Peace believes that this very close divestment vote and the successful boycott vote, along with several other recent watershed victories, makes clear that Israel can no longer count on being singled out for special treatment. Depending on major institutions to selectively ignore Israel’s human rights record year after year is no longer a viable strategy.

These recent watershed victories are:

Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI), a leading US investment firm, removed Caterpillar, Inc. from its socially responsible investment indexes, saying Caterpillar’s role in Israeli human rights violations were one of the “key factors” in the decision.
Shortly thereafter, retirement giant TIAA-CREF dropped $72 million in Caterpillar, Inc stock from their socially responsible funds.
Friends Fiduciary Corporation, which handles investments for over 250 Quaker meetings, schools, organizations, trusts, and endowments around the US, divested from Caterpillar.
The United Methodist Church resolved to boycott “products made by Israeli companies operating in occupied Palestinian territories.” The church called on all nations “to prohibit any financial support by individuals or organizations for the construction and maintenance of settlements and the import of products made [in settlements.]“

The power behind the idea that Palestinians deserve full civil and democratic rights, just as Jewish Israelis do, grows exponentially each day.

We look forward to standing beside our Presbyterian friends as they take additional steps toward a just peace based on security, freedom and equal rights for all the people of Israel and Palestine.

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