Presbyterians Vote to Divest Holdings to Pressure Israel
By LAURIE GOODSTEINJUNE 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 theIsrael/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.”
A version of this article appears in print on June 21, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Pressing Israel, Presbyterians Vote to Divest.