Presbyterian Church’s narrow rejection of divestment unlikely to slow anti-Israel push

July 12, 2012

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WASHINGTON (JTA)—Proponents of using economic pressure to force Israel out of the West Bank may have lost a key battle —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 late Thursday, 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—aimed at undermining Israel’s occupation of the West Bank—has come to a victory in a major American religious denomination.

The next morning 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 says 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,” says the Rev. Katherine Cunningham, the vice-moderator of the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IMPN), 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 IPNM “will continue its efforts to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians and to help bring peace and justice to Israelis and Palestinians alike,” she says.

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) voted in 2004 to approach corporations 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 calls 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,” says 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, says the Rev. John Wimberly, co-moderator of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. “The fact is there was an overwhelming consensus that the Palestinians are in a very bad place and we want to help them,” he says.

“The anger from the pro-divestment crowd towards Israel is not over,” adds Wimberly, who opposes divestment. “As long as there are Israeli troops on the West Bank, there are going to be different ways in which that’s tackled. We don’t know what this will be, but we know it’s not going to be divestment moving forward.”

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 occupation of the West Bank.

by Ron Kampeas and Neil Rubin

Letter to the Editor