Divestment question before Presbyterians

Firms connected to West Bank dispute would not get funds

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In a closely watched vote that followed a day of intense deliberations, the Committee on Middle East and Peacemaking Issues of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly approved a resolution Tuesday morning to divest from companies whose products are used by Israel to enforce occupation of the West Bank. The vote was 36 in favor, 11 opposed, and one abstention.

The resolution recommends that the church divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard after an eight-year corporate engagement process yielded no reforms.

The general church body will vote on the resolution this week.

According to Brian Ellison, chair of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee, Hewlett-Packard sells hardware used by Israel in its naval blockade of Gaza; Motorola Solutions supplies surveillance technology to Israeli settlements; and Caterpillar provides bulldozers that raze Palestinian homes.

Jim Dugan, a spokesman for Caterpillar, wrote in an email that Caterpillar does not sell machines directly to Israel, but rather through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales Program.

The vote came after a long day Monday during which committee members heard impassioned testimony from American Jews, Arab Christians and Presbyterians. Supporters of divestment said that Christian values compelled them not to invest in companies that profit from an unjust occupation.

To fellow committee members, Simone Adams of Atlanta recounted crying at the foot of a cross during a visit to Terezin Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic last year. She said the visit made her question what cruelty had allowed the Holocaust to pass and how Jews could now inflict suffering on their Palestinian neighbors.

"How could someone who has been through something like that in any way or form try even in the slightest way to put somebody else through that?" she asked.

Opponents of divestment said that such a step would rupture close relations with American Jews and asked that the church continue to engage with the companies in question.

"For Jewish people, for hundreds of years economic leverage has been used against them," said Kenneth Page of Grand Canyon Presbytery. "If we do this it will break relations."

Rabbi Alvin Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, expressed dismay that the committee had ignored outreach from Jewish congregations largely united against divestment.

"They've allowed themselves to be misguided by Palestinian Christians," he said.

Rae Abileah of Jewish Voice for Peace voiced concern that pressure from Jewish leaders would convince Presbyterians not to follow their conscience in the plenary session vote, but said she was heartened that the church was taking steps to bring its investments into line with its values.

"It aligned the words of the church which opposes illegal occupation with the actions of the church," she said.

Committee discussions indicated that members were broadly prepared to take decisive, targeted action against Israeli occupation, though they frequently looked for opportunities to promote positive investment in Israel and Palestine.

There were hints that members opposed to divestment would bring a minority report rejecting divestment before the plenary session, which will vote on the matter between today and Friday.

Following the committee's vote, which brought the room to a swift silence after hours of contentious debate and slow-moving parliamentary procedure, moderator Jack Baca led those assembled in a prayer.

"We pray that all people would hear our desire not to punish, not to disrespect, but to further those highest goals for humanity [that] you've sought for us from the beginning."

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Benjamin Mueller: bmueller@post-gazette.com, 412-263-4903.


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