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Presbyterians vote to divest from firms sustaining occupation

Robert Ross, centre, and other observers in Detroit after the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted last Friday to approve divestment. Photo by Joshua Lott for The New York Times

Presbyterians Vote to Divest Holdings to Pressure Israel

By Laurie Goodstein, NY Times
June 20, 2014

DETROIT — After passionate debate over how best to help break the deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted on Friday at its general convention to divest from three companies that it says supply Israel with equipment used in the occupation of Palestinian territory.

The vote, by a count of 310 to 303, was watched closely in Washington and Jerusalem and by Palestinians as a sign of momentum for a movement to pressure Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to end the occupation, with a campaign known as B.D.S., for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one of a handful of historic mainline Protestant denominations and the church of many American presidents, is the largest yet to endorse divestment at a churchwide convention, and the vote follows a decade of debate — and a close call at the assembly two years ago, when divestment failed by only two votes.

The measure that was passed not only called for divestment but also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a two-state solution, encouraged interfaith dialogue and travel to the Holy Land, and instructed the church to undertake “positive investment” in endeavors that advance peace and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. It also said the motion was “not to be construed” as “alignment with or endorsement of the global B.D.S.” movement by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The language was written by the church’s 65-member Middle East committee.

Heath Rada, the church’s moderator, who was leading the proceedings, said immediately after the electronic vote count was posted, “In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.”

The B.D.S. campaign has gained support in Europe, but has not fared as well in the United States, where two relatively small academic groups voted this year to support an academic boycott of Israel, but larger groups as well as many universities have opposed it.

The companies the church has targeted for divestment are Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. The church has about $21 million invested in them, a spokeswoman said. The church says it has tried for many years to convey its concerns that the companies are profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories by selling it bulldozers, surveillance technology and other equipment.

Large American Jewish organizations lobbied the Presbyterians furiously to defeat a divestment vote, their most determined campaign yet in the 10 years the Presbyterians have considered such a step. More than 1,700 rabbis from all 50 states signed an open letter to the Presbyterian voters, saying that “placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility, increases conflict and division instead of promoting peace.”

In a last-ditch tactic on Thursday, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of the Reform movement (the largest branch in American Judaism), addressed the assembly and offered to broker a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the church’s two top leaders so they could convey their church’s concerns about the occupation — on the condition that the divestment measure was defeated.

That offer appears to have backfired, with some saying afterward that it felt both manipulative and ineffectual, given what they perceive as Mr. Netanyahu’s approval of more settlements in disputed areas and lack of enthusiasm for peace negotiations.

“I’m not sure it was the strategy I would have chosen,” the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the church’s stated clerk and one of the two leaders invited to meet Mr. Netanyahu, said in an interview. “I’m sure it was a sincere and generous invitation. I’m not sure it was helpful in our debate.”

He said that Presbyterians valued their relationships with Jews in their communities and in Washington, where their lobbyists are often on the same side of many issues. He acknowledged that the church has been accused of anti-Semitism, which he said was not true and “delegitimizes our concerns” about human rights.

“We’re still committed to Israel and its right to exist, but we’re concerned about the occupation and think Israel can do better,” Mr. Parsons said.

Relations between Jews and Presbyterians soured after the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a Presbyterian advocacy group, issued a study guide this year called “Zionism Unsettled,” which challenged the history and theological underpinnings of the Zionist movement. Jewish leaders denounced it as hateful, racist and willfully ignorant of the role of the Holocaust and violence toward Israel by the Palestinians and Arab countries in explaining the region’s history.

The assembly passed a measure here in Detroit saying that the study guide does not represent official church policy, but it is available for sale on the church’s website. Jewish organizations have called for the church to stop selling it. Many Presbyterians at the general assembly said that they had not read it, and that it had no bearing on their votes.

Of more influence was the presence at the church’s convention all week of Jewish activists, many of them young, in black T-shirts with the slogan “Another Jew Supporting Divestment.” Many of them were with Jewish Voice for Peace, a small but growing organization that promotes divestment and works with Palestinian and Christian groups on the left.

Right before the vote, some Presbyterian commissioners sought out Rabbi Alissa Wise, director of Jewish Voice for Peace, who spent a week inside the convention center and spoke at a prayer service in a Presbyterian church. She told them that divestment can serve a constructive purpose. “To me, this helps Palestinians build their power,” she said, “so that Israel is convinced, not by force, but by global consensus that something has to change.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with nearly 1.8 million members, has been losing members and influence in recent decades, in part from wrenching debates over whether to ordain gay clergy members and permit same-sex marriages, a step the assembly approved here on Thursday.

It is not the first American church to use divestment to protest Israeli policies: The Mennonite Central Committee and the Quakers have sold stock in some companies that do business with Israel. Last week the pension board of the United Methodist Church announced that it had sold its stock in a company over concerns about its contracts with Israeli prisons.

Rifaat Odeh Kassis, a Palestinian Christian who traveled from Bethlehem to urge the Presbyterians to vote for divestment, said in an interview that the vote would send a loud message to Palestinians that says, “You are not alone.”

Major Jewish organizations were quick to issue statements expressing distress and outrage. Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called the divestment action “outrageous” and said it would have a “devastating impact” on relations between the national church and mainstream Jewish groups.

Mr. Rada, the church’s moderator, said at a news conference after the vote, “I don’t believe you could talk to a single commissioner and have any of them say they were doing this as an anti-Jewish issue.

“I think there is a lot of emotion about the unjust treatment on the part of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians, but there is equal upset,” he said, about “terrorist activity that has been undertaken by the Palestinians.”

In ‘turning-point’ vote, Presbyterians divest from occupation-linked corporations

Philip Weiss and Alex Kane, Mondoweiss
June 20, 2014

Image of jumbo screen at Presbyterian assembly, by Jordan Tarwater

Nearly 30 years after it divested from corporations complicit in South African apartheid, the Presbyterian Church voted 310-303 to divest from three corporations involved with the Israeli military and its occupation. The vote means that $21 million of Presbyterian stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions will be divested.

The extraordinarily close vote (51% to 49% of delegates) came after an intense hours-long debate that featured emotional pleas on all sides.

“It hurts me to know that we invest in the tearing apart of Palestinian lives,” said Emma Warman, a youth delegate, before the vote took place. The advisory voters, including the youth delegates, overwhelmingly recommended a positive vote for divestment.

This close vote came two years after another close vote that went in the opposite direction. In 2012, the Presbyterian Church rejected divestment by just two votes.

“After a decade of corporate engagement with Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions, these companies have failed to modify their behavior and continue to profit from Israeli human rights abuses and non-peaceful pursuits,” said Rev. Dr. Walt Davis in a statement released by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a Presbyterian group that supported divestment. “This is a historic vote and the culmination of a long and deliberate internal process within the church.”

The vote followed and preceded many anguished statements from church members who said they feared alienating Jewish groups with the vote. Heath Rada, the leader of the general assembly, rushed to assure the Jewish community that the vote was “in no way a reflection of a lack of love for our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

The American Jewish Committee was not assuaged. In a tweet, it called the vote “a setback for Israeli-Palestinian peace & a breach w/ Jewish community.”

But many supporters of the divestment resolution cited Jewish support for it. Jewish Voice for Peace had lobbied hard for the divestment resolution, and it released a celebratory statement immediately after the vote:

Jewish Voice for Peace congratulates and celebrates the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s vote to divest $21 million from Hewlett-Packard, Motorola Solutions, and Caterpillar – three companies whose profits from the ongoing Israeli occupation have been extensively documented.

The Church has a long history of ethical investment choices, and it is a strong signal of its commitment to universal human rights that it chose to divest.

This is a turning point. The Presbyterians’ decision is a major development in the longstanding work to bring the US into alignment with the rest of the world.

This decision will have real consequences, sending a message to Palestinians that the ongoing violations of their human rights is worthy of action on the global stage, and to companies and the Israeli government that the occupation is both morally and economically untenable.

Original Mondoweiss post:

The Presbyterian Church’s general assembly in Detroit deliberated all afternoon on resolutions on the Israel/Palestine conflict. The main motion, to divest from three corporations that serve the Israeli occupation–Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Systems — went before the body after dinner tonight at 7:30. You can follow the historic discussion on the live-stream, above.

Debate has been spirited and wide-ranging. A motion to replace the divestment resolution with a resolution that called on the head of the Presbyterian church to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu next week in Jerusalem, at the behest of Reform Jewish leader Rick Jacobs, was defeated by 54 to 46 percent, in a possible signal of the outcome on the main vote tonight.

Pro-divestment voices have been very strong. Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, the head of the committee on responsible investment in the church, said that the church had undertaken divestment on earlier occasions, notably from many companies doing business in apartheid South Africa, beginning in 1985, and from a company implicated in Sudanese human rights abuses.

Somplatsky-Jarman also said that the three companies have all refused to engage in productive dialogue on the concerns of the church’s ethical investment committee that they are promoting violence. By contrast, Citi Group sat down with the Presbyterians to address its concern that bank funds might be going to suicide bombers.

Dries Coetzee, a church commissioner originally from South Africa, thanked the church for having liberated Afrikaaners like himself from their role in apartheid, through the divestment action in 1985. He called on the church to do the same for Israelis.

Heath Rada, the moderator of the assembly, closed the afternoon session with a hymn calling on the commissioners to the assembly to find peace in their hearts. It would seem that the church’s leaders are opposed to the divestment measure, despite many changes to it assuring Israelis that the church is committed to a two-state solution that preserves the country’s Jewish character.

Tonight’s debate promises to be serious, earnest, and even thrilling. Tune in.

Here’s a comment from the active discussion on the Presbyterian site:

I too visited Jerusalem and the West Bank recently, on a Joint Advocacy Initiative (JAI) run jointly by the YWCA & YMCA in Jerusalem and Bethleham. I thought I knew a lot about Palestine and Israel but was horrified by the prison like locking in of Bethleham by 7 prominent illegal Jewish settlements on the hills around and immediately visible from the centre of Bethleham, and the concrete wall carving the town in two and cutting off Palestinian rights of thousands of years to visit Ravhels tomb. Having also seen Palestinians subject to pass laws within the West Bank, and heard the JAI and Jerusalem YMCA speakers on why they have become convinced Israel is operating an Apartheid state, I have been convinced that the Two State Solution is no solution.

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