A sharply divided Presbyterian Church (USA) voted 333 to 331— with two abstentions — to reject a resolution to divest funds from companies doing business in Israel last Thursday at its 220th biennial General Assembly in Pittsburgh.
The controversial divestment resolution was replaced with an alternative resolution emphasizing positive investment in enterprises that would help grow the Palestinian economy. The resolution for positive investment passed the G.A. with a vote of 369 in favor, 290 opposed, and eight abstentions.
A slim majority of G.A. commissioners voted against the divestment resolution despite the recommendation of the church’s Middle East Peacemaking committee to pass it.
The vote came after nearly three hours of G.A. debate, preceded by several days of debate within the committee. While some members of the church urged the commissioners to vote against divestment for the sake of Jewish-Presbyterian relations, and to avoid partisanship, others resorted to a vitriolic lexicon, accusing Israel of “apartheid,” and “ethnic cleansing.”
The majority of commissioners, however, formally rejected the “apartheid” label in a 463-175 vote on Friday. The Middle East committee opposed the label, saying that while Israel’s policies were wrong, they did not fit the United Nations race-based definition of apartheid.
The divestment resolution was directed against three companies purportedly doing business in Israel: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. Proponents of divestment say that Caterpillar supplies the bulldozers and earth-moving equipment used by the Israel Defense Forces to clear Palestinian homes and orchards; that Hewlett-Packard provides biometric monitoring at checkpoints and information technology to the Israeli navy; and that Motorola supplies surveillance equipment to “illegal settlements” in the West Bank, and communications equipment to “occupation forces.”
Brian Ellison, chair of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee, told the G.A. that divestment was a “last resort” after years of engagement with the companies failed to influence them to “refrain from using their goods and services for violent acts.”
Ellison pointed to “the Israeli military occupation,” the “separation wall” in the West Bank, and Israeli checkpoints as “inconvenient, humiliating, and discriminating” to the Palestinians.
Ellison failed to mention that Israeli lives have been saved by the erection of the security wall and the checkpoints. In 2002, the year before construction of the wall began, 457 Israelis were murdered by Palestinian terrorists; in 2009, eight Israelis were killed by terrorist attacks.
While G.A. moderator Jack Baca emphasized that divestment “is in no way meant to express contempt for Israel or condemnation of our Jewish brothers and sisters,” the mainstream Jewish community, did, saw the resolution as exactly that.
“Clearly, we have seen some mission networks and advisory committees and other institutions [in the Presbyterian church] in a comfort zone with anti-Israel, anti-Jewish animus that we hoped had died with Father Coughlin,” said Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “Our primary focus before the General Assembly was in communicating how dire we saw this.”
While a potential Presbyterian divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions would have no effect on the companies’ bottom lines, the significance of such a symbolic move by a mainline Christian denomination would not go unnoticed by those behind the BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) movement, whose ultimate goal is the delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish state.
The BDS campaign began in 2001 at the United Nations Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, where political NGOs organized around what they called “the apartheid strategy” in an effort to brand Israel the new South Africa. The BDS campaign aims to appeal to the genuine humanitarian sentiments of grassroots groups that are generally unfamiliar with the intricate details and history of the issues in the Middle East, presenting a one-sided, pro-Palestinian narrative. The targeted audience finds it easy to support any movement that ostensibly opposes apartheid, discrimination, inequality and colonialism.
While a divestment action against just a few companies — like the one proposed by the Presbyterians — may appear to be limited in scope, once a mainstream church comes on board, those behind the BDS movement expand the message to the world that the church also agrees that Israel is an apartheid state, according to the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Mainstream Jewish groups thus view even limited divestment from Israel as a very serious matter, and were poised to react accordingly if the vote had gone the other way for the Presbyterians last week.
“Obviously, we would have been in a stage of ‘no business as usual’ had [the divestment resolution] passed,” Felson said. “That was not a threat; it was just a broad-based understanding of a reality, not by fiat, but organically.”
Many Presbyterians understood the potential fallout of a vote in favor of divestment.
“No one cares about our symbolic gesture,” Matthew Miller, of the Presbytery of Prospect Hill, told the G.A. “The unintended consequence of a divestment strategy will alienate our interfaith Jewish partners in this country. It will privilege the Palestinians’ suffering over the suffering of the Israelis. This is not a course of action that will have its symbolic effect.”
On the other side of the debate, the language became inflammatory, as Raafat Zaki, synod executive of the Covenant, accused Israelis of “ethnic cleansing,” and “apartheid,” and Moufid Khoury, a commissioned lay pastor in Lehigh, referred to the Israeli “occupation” as “the worst form of terrorism,” saying that it was Israel’s actions “that inspired the terrorism of 9-11.”
“Obviously, the Presbyterian church is very divided,” said Jeffrey Cohan, director of community and public affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “And it is vividly apparent that there are packets of institutionalized anti-Zionism, and in some cases, anti-Semitism within the Presbyterian church. On the other hand, last night’s vote for positive investment gives us something to build on with our Presbyterian friends. At the same time, that’s going to be very challenging if the Presbyterian church doesn’t do something to address some of those internal issues.”
Cohan pointed to several pro-divestment organizations, including a fringe Jewish group, “that went to incredible lengths to lobby the General Assembly here in Pittsburgh. The fact that they would be that committed to demonizing Israel was really breathtaking. It was disappointing to see the Presbyterian General Assembly highjacked and turned into an anti-Israel bash.”
The anti-Israel sentiment stems from the national level of the Presbyterian church, according to Rabbi Alvin K. Berkun of Pittsburgh, immediate past chair of the National Council of Synagogues, who addressed the Presbyterian committee on Middle East Peacemaking Issues last week. Evidence of this anti-Israel sentiment is the people that the national level of the church chooses to send to the committee to serve as “resources” while deliberating divestment.
Those resources — which included Anna Baltzer, a national organizer with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation — presented a “skewed” perspective of the situation in Israel, Berkun said.
“Their (the Presbyterians) sympathies are clearly in the Arab world, because that is where they missionize,” Berkun said, adding that divestment would most likely be on the agenda again at the next G.A. in 2014.
“I think they’re going to come back for more,” he said. “And unless the tone changes from the top, we’re going to have a tough time.”
While the Committee on Middle East Peacemaking presented 10 separate resolutions to the G.A. regarding Israel — and debated the issue for several days — it presented no resolutions and engaged in no debate regarding any other Middle Eastern countries that have been accused of persecuting Christians, e.g., Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, or Pakistan.
It is precisely because Israel is open to hearing the protests of the church that may be why it has been singled out, speculated Rev. Sheldon Sorge, pastor to the Pittsburgh Presbytery, who also sees the issue of divestment as one that will not go away anytime soon.
“We have no assurance that anyone in Syria is even listening to us, or any of the other countries,” Sorge said. “The difficulty for Christians is we have no way of getting their ear. But with Israel, we have the ear of people who are listening, and maybe we can make a difference.”
Sorge sees the closeness of last week’s vote as indicative of the dilemma the church faces in feeling loyalty to both Jews and Palestinians.
“I think it indicates we are very much torn between our friendship with the Jewish community and Israel and our friendship with the Palestinian community,” Sorge said. “It is difficult to be caught in the middle. The vote is very revealing of how difficult it is. On any given day, it could have gone the other way. I hope everyone hears very seriously how close we are to the tipping point either way. I hope nobody sits secure.”
In fact, on Friday, the G.A. voted 457-180 in favor of a resolution boycotting “all Israeli products coming from the occupied Palestinian Territories” and for “all nations” to prohibit settlement imports. The resolution singled out Ahava, a skin care company, and the Hadiklaim Israel Date Growers, which both have factories in West Bank settlements.
The PC (USA) is the only mainstream Christian church in the country that is so close to voting in favor of divestment. Similar resolutions have been handily rejected by the Methodists, the Lutherans and the Episcopalians, among others.
“The key leadership of the church needs to address why this denomination stands so far apart, not leading the pack, but falling astray,” Felson said.
But, at least for now, the PC (USA) has found a way to pursue peace and build bridges rather than take a stand that, without question, would have severed its ties with the Jewish community at large.
The adapting of the alternative resolution for positive investment “allows Presbyterians to be true to our calling as peacemakers,” said Russell Sullivan Jr., TEC of Carlisle. “This will sustain our positive relationship with both Palestinians and Israelis, and stand with everyone in the Middle East who desires peace and justice.”
It is Presbyterian leaders like Russell on whom the Jewish community will rely to help spread the message that buying into the divestment movement is not a path to peace.
“We are positive about the nature of those who came to the General Assembly who have, time after time, heard their better angels and rejected the partisanship placed before them,” Felson said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)