Presbyterians Debate Divestment




Proponents of using economic pressure to force Israel out of the West Bank may have lost a key battle last week — by a hair's breadth — but they have no intention of giving up.

That's the message from backers of a divestment motion at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which on July 5 rejected a proposal to divest from companies selling equipment to the Israeli military in the West Bank.

The 333-331 vote, with two abstentions, at the church's Pittsburgh gathering was the closest that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known as BDS, has come to a victory in a major American religious denomination.


That vote set the stage for the General Assembly to adopt, by about an 80-vote margin, a Mideast resolution introduced by the Philadelphia Presbytery that rejects divestment and focuses on positive engagement.

The overture, as it's known in Presbyterian parlance, originated with the Media Presbyterian Church. It calls on the denomination to bring American Jews, Christians and Muslims to Israel and the West Bank for study, travel and social action that exposes them to the perspectives of both Israelis and Palestinians.

It also calls for the church to invest in projects that support collaboration among Jews, Christians and Muslims and bolster Palestinian infrastructure in order to create a viable state.

The Rev. William Borror, who was in Pittsburgh to advocate for the Philadelphia resolution, said, "The divestment people gave it their best shot and their argument didn't hold credence with the majority of folks."

Borror, who heads the Media church and has traveled to Israel with the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said that while many influential Presbyterians support divestment, he thinks the defeat of the main resolution and support of his reflected the majority views of the movement.

Rabbi David Straus, president of JCRC, said that the defeat of divestment "would not have happened without our good friends in Philadelphia."

"It shows the value of community relations," he added. "These are people who really have been good friends to the Jewish community and who we have worked with on other issues, such as gun violence."

The meeting in Pittsburgh also saw the defeat, by a substantial margin — 403-175 — of a resolution that would have likened Israel's West Bank presence to apartheid. But a boycott resolution targeting only products manufactured in the West Bank did pass, 457-180. Delegates also approved by a 70-vote margin a resolution supporting investment in companies that help build the West Bank economy.

"We are concerned, but think it's unproductive," Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the agency's point person on interfaith relations, said of the vote to boycott West Bank products.

However, the main focus of the proceedings and their aftermath was on the divestment issue. Its Presbyterian and Jewish advocates vowed to press on.

"It appears that church commissioners were swayed by a fear that divestment would cause irreparable harm to Jewish-Christian relations," said the Rev. Katherine Cunningham, the vice moderator of the church's Israel/Palestine Mission Network, which recommended divestment. "In reality, the divestment motion was supported by a broad alliance of Jews, Christians and others who believe that nonviolent means such as divestment are an effective way to pressure the Israeli government into abiding by international law and respecting Palestinian human rights."

The network, she said, "will continue its efforts to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians and to help bring peace and justice to Israelis and Palestinians alike."

A 2011 church report found that Caterpillar supplies bulldozers for the demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israel Defense Forces, Motorola provides cell phone technology to West Bank settlements and Hewlett-Packard manages information technology for the Israeli Navy.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) had voted in 2004 to approach corporations that they said were aiding Israel's occupation of the West Bank, asking them to reconsider business with the Jewish state. The effort, which held back initial calls for divestment, was reaffirmed in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Felson called the vote against divestment a victory even though it was closer than previous votes in other religious movements. Most recently, in May, the Methodist Church defeated similar divestment proposals by a 2-to-1 margin.

"This is a major milestone that despite the full-court press from the denomination's main institutions, when presented to the rank and file, divestment doesn't fly," said Felson, who was at the convention lobbying church leaders to tone down the resolution.

While divestment is now off the table for the church, more efforts targeting Israel should be expected, said the Rev. John Wimberly, co-moderator of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. He also cautioned that the vote should not be seen as approval of Israel's policies.

"The fact is there was an overwhelming consensus that the Palestinians are in a very bad place and we want to help them," he said.

A number of Jewish groups pushed hard against the divestment resolution, and more than 22,000 Jews signed a letter organized by the JCPA and the Jewish Federations of North America's Israel Action Network urging the Presbyterian delegates to reject the divestment resolution. 

The letter followed an earlier one signed by 1,300 rabbis and sent to the church that called on Presbyterians to deepen their "understandings of the multiple narratives in the region" and "focus on positive steps including economic development, Palestinian state building, and a return to negotiations."

Americans for Peace Now and J Street each called on the church to reject the divestment resolution, even though both groups oppose Israel's presence in the West Bank.

Most Jewish groups welcomed the rejection of divestment, and expressed the hope that last week's vote put the matter to rest.

However, Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS and has been labeled by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the top 10 anti-Israel groups in the United States, said it would not be dissuaded by the narrow loss of the divestment proposal.

"This is a historic moment in the struggle for dignity and justice, and I commend the PC (USA) for getting us this close to holding corporations accountable for profiting from the occupation," said Rabbi Alissa Wise, the director of campaigns for Jewish Voice for Peace.

The group, which includes Jews and non-Jews, sent members to Pittsburgh for the convention and lobbied on behalf of the resolution.



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