DETROIT — In a landmark and highly charged measure that already has been fraying Jewish-Presbyterian ties, the legislative body of the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination narrowly voted Friday to shed investments in three American corporations linked to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
By a 310-303 margin, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted on the measure after about three hours of tense but restrained debate on either side of a dinner break.
The denomination has only a small fraction of its market capitalization, about $21 million, in assets in the three companies, so the measure is largely symbolic. While the measure affirmed Israel’s right to exist and explicitly distanced it from a broader campaign to target Israel with economic boycotts, sanctions and divestments, advocates say it still unfairly blames Israel for the Middle East standoff.
The vote marks the first time the legislative body of any national Protestant denomination, several of which have considered but rejected such actions, chose to target the occupation with economic pressure. It comes after a decade of debates over divestment within the denomination. The United Methodists’ pension board recently voted to divest from a British security firm linked to the occupation.
The Presbyterian assembly voted to shed its shares in Caterpillar, which provides heavy equipment that Israel used to demolish Palestinians’ homes and build roads for illegal settlements. It also is divesting from Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard, which provide high-technology products and services that Israeli settlers and security forces used.
“We’ve tried to change the products and processes of these corporations in which we are invested and which are causing human hurt,” said Elizabeth Terry Dunning, chairwoman of the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment, but she said the corporations haven’t changed and “in some cases deepened their involvement.”
Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which represents a broad spectrum of Jewish advocacy groups, said in a statement the vote would “undoubtedly have a devastating impact” on the church’s relations with mainstream Jewish groups. “We hold the leadership of the PCUSA accountable for squandering countless opportunities, not only to act responsibly to advance prospects for Middle East peace but also to isolate and repudiate the radical, prejudiced voices in their denomination.”
That alluded to the publication earlier this year of a Presbyterian committee’s study guide titled “Zionism Unsettled,” which challenged the fundamental legitimacy of Zionism. The assembly passed a statement that “Zionism Unsettled” does not reflect official denominational policy.
But advocates for divestment included several from the group Jewish Voice for Peace, a vocal but outlier view among Jewish organizations. California Rabbi Alissa Wise of the group commended its “firm, bold commitment to realizing a just peace in Israel/Palestine.”
Heath Rada, moderator for the General Assembly, said the narrow margin indicated how difficult the decision was.
Advocates for divestment said Presbyterians need to take action to break the longstanding occupation. Their historic mission work among Arab Christians has partly fueled their affinity for the plight of Palestinians.
The Rev. Frank Allen offered a minority report that would avoid divestment and continue dialogue and advocacy for a two-state solution.
“God’s children are on all sides of this conflict, and the world needs a reconciled and reconciling Presbyterian Church,” he said. Divestment would “provoke more dissension in an already troubled and divided church.”
Dries Coetzee, a church representative from Ohio, said divestment would benefit Israelis the same way it benefited him as a native-white South African when Presbyterians and others pressured his homeland to end apartheid.
Church elder Mike Fritz, who lives near Caterpillar’s home base in Illinois, said churches with large numbers of the corporation’s employees are left wondering if “they would be more welcome in another denomination.”
The divestment measure also reaffirmed “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders” and the denomination‘s longstanding support for a two-state solution.
In a separate measure the denomination called for a committee to study the two-state idea, questioning its viability given Israel’s occupation.
First Published June 20, 2014 8:28 PM