By a hairbreadth vote of 333-331, the Presbyterian Church USA rejected a proposal Thursday to divest from companies whose products are used by Israel to enforce occupation of the West Bank.
The vote, at the church's biennial meeting held this year at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, followed weeks of lobbying and days of impassioned testimony by American Jews, Palestinian Christians and Presbyterians. In proceedings that are being watched around the world, Presbyterians voted to replace the divestment proposal with a separate one calling for positive investment in businesses in the West Bank.
The vote represented a surprising reversal after a smaller committee voted by a 3-to-1 margin earlier this week to support divestment.
Jewish American groups and Palestinian Christians arrived in droves this week to offer personal testimony and lobby voters. Supporters of divestment said withdrawing church funds from offending companies would bring the church's actions into line with Christian values. Opponents warned that divestment would rupture relations with American Jews and galvanize a global "boycott, divestment, sanctions" movement organized by Palestinian civil society that does not explicitly recognize Israel's right to exist.
The vote brings PCUSA into line with other mainline U.S. Protestant denominations that have rejected divestment. The United Methodist Church voted in May not to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, the same three companies targeted by PCUSA. The Evangelical Lutheran Church rejected divestment in 2007 and 2011.
According to Brian Ellison, chairman of the Presbyterian 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 Israel uses militarized Caterpillar bulldozers to raze Palestinian homes.
He argued that the church should not make profits off investments in companies that contribute to the oppression of Palestinians.
He said divestment represents the customary conclusion to an unsuccessful eight-year corporate engagement process and was not meant to condemn Israel.
But by the narrowest of margins, the church body disagreed. The Rev. Matthew Miller from Iowa said before the body that divestment would "privilege Palestinian suffering over the suffering of Israelis" and jeopardize close collaboration with American Jews.
"No one cares about our symbolic action," he said. "It will achieve nothing other than alienation."
The Rev. Susan Andrews, a former moderator of the General Assembly and an influential liberal in the church, said she had been to the West Bank but opposed divestment.
She explained that the church's twin moral imperatives to "stand in solidarity against the pain and oppression" of Palestinians and to "stand in solidarity with our historic Jewish partners in Israel and the U.S." demanded that it take a more positive course.
The influence of mainstream Jewish groups was on display at the start of Thursday's plenary session. Rabbi Gil Rosenthal, one of more than 1,500 rabbis to sign a letter sent to Christian groups opposing divestment, was invited to give an ecumenical greeting. Instead, he used the occasion to argue that divestment would "fracture relationships perhaps irreparably" and "embolden those who would like to de-legitimize [Israel]."
Advocates for Jewish Voice for Peace stood outside the hall throughout the day asking members to end the church's complicity in Palestinian suffering and align their investments with Christian values.
Other Presbyterians resisted demands that Presbyterians choose between friendship with American Jews and standing against injustice. The Rev. Sam Picard of Genesee Valley Presbytery told the assembly that the occupation was "unjust" and "corrosive to Israel's democracy." He had feared damaging relationships with Jews, but conversations with Jewish supporters of divestment during the week had showed him that "that consensus is not true. The Jewish community is diverse."
The Rev. Tim Simpson of St. Augustine Presbytery was blunt in his assessment that positive investment in the West Bank offered a false promise of assistance to Palestinians.
"Palestinians aren't asking us for a check, sisters and brothers. Palestinians are asking us for justice. They're asking us for dignity."
Following the vote, supporters of divestment were sullen.
"Our hearts go out for the continuing cries of Palestinian people for justice," said the Rev. Jeffrey DeYoe of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church. "The route that the General Assembly has chosen doesn't answer these cries in the way the Palestinians have been asking."
The Rev. John Wimberly of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, which opposes divestment, celebrated the more positive path of investment the assembly had chosen.
"We need to stop fighting divestment and come together to help Palestinians build an economy over there."
The motion calling for positive investment in the West Bank and collaborative projectsamong Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the region passed by a vote of 369-290.
In other business, the General Assembly defeated two measures that would have helped theological conservatives either remain in the denomination or to leave it and take their property with them. According to one survey, up to 800 of more than 10,000 congregations are poised to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) if it approves gay marriage, and hundreds of others have already left.nation
Benjamin Mueller: email@example.com, 412-263-4903.