The Committee on Middle East and Peacemaking Issues of the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a resolution Tuesday in favor of divesting from companies doing business in Israel by a 36 to 11 vote. The resolution now goes to the larger church body for a final vote later this week.
Members of the committee deliberated Monday on the issue of divestment at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, where their 220th General Assembly is being held.
The divestment resolutions are 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; Hewlett-Packard provides biometric monitoring at checkpoints and information technology to the Israeli navy; and Motorola supplies surveillance equipment to “illegal settlements” in the West Bank, and communications equipment to “occupation forces.”
If the PC (USA) passes these resolutions, it will be the only mainstream religious group in the United States to formally adopt divestment policies toward Israel. The United Methodist Church defeated two similar motions to divest by a large margin at its General Conference last month.
The committee listened to hours of testimony from both sides of the debate, including the voices of a few American rabbis imploring their Presbyterian neighbors to examine both sides of the conflict in their effort to foster peace in the region.
“Our shared goal is furthering peace, and we believe that the divestment initiative does not further peace because it is a judgment, an oversimplification, against one side in the conflict,” Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee, told the committee. “That is how most American Jews understand this initiative and they hope the church will join with the many in the American Jewish community who believe that the only path to peace is a return to negotiations without preconditions, so the conflict can be resolved mutually by the parties to the conflict. That will happen not by outside judgments, such as divestment, but rather by a renewed commitment to peace by Israelis and Palestinians, and, indeed, through the historic interfaith connection and dialogue between Presbyterians and Jews which I — we all — cherish.”
A letter signed by 1,500 rabbis, representing a range of political and denominational affiliations, urging the church to reject the divestment resolutions, was sent to the PC (USA) prior to the General Assembly. Likewise, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Israel Action Network amassed signatures of over 22,000 Jews to a “Letter of Hope,” also urging the church to reject divestment.
Rabbi Alvin K. Berkun, a past president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and rabbi emeritus of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Congregation, also addressed the committee, pointing out the significance in having the Jewish community so united on any given issue.
“I want to thank you,” he told the Presbyterian committee members. “Every two years, you bring the Jewish community together.”
Acknowledging that the church had received another letter with only 18 rabbinic signatures from the pro-divestment group Jewish Voice for Peace, Berkun explained that the letter signed by 1,500 rabbis from the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist movements was evidence of where the Jewish majority is on the issue. He also warned the committee members that “boycott, sanction and divestment (BDS) is going to lead to delegitimitzation.”
While many Presbyterians spoke out in favor of divestment, failing to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of Palestinian terrorist groups, and calling Israel’s “occupation the worst form of terrorism,” others advocated against the resolutions.
Jan Armstrong, executive presbyter of the Santa Barbara (California) Presbytery, noted that in 2006, the committee issued an apology for voting to divest in 2004, and that the “witness and testimony” of the committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) — the fact-finding body recommending divestment — “was flawed, false and at many times an outright lie.”
A former member of the MRTI, Jill Schaeffer of the Susquehanna Valley Presbytery, was visibly upset by the one-sided arguments presented by those in favor of divestment.
“My conscience is pricked that I am not hearing both sides,” she said. “I am offended by the silence about arms being smuggled to Hamas and the arming of Hezbollah. In the lack of data and concern [for Israelis] I find pro-divestment to be a very bad strategy.”
The arguments in favor of divestment ranged from not wanting to be invested in companies that “participate in the occupation,” to using it as a method to “get Israel back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.”
But the one-sidedness of these positions is problematic, said Bart Gingerich, research assistant at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, who has been attending the committee meetings this week.
“With divestment, you become a partisan with the issue (of Middle East peace) instead of a bridge-builder,” Gingerich said. “For effective peacemaking, there needs to be more give and take. If the Presbyterians want to be part of it, they need to build bridges, and not just take a partisan position.”
Gingerich said that divestment appeals to those on the left of the political spectrum because of a movement to equate the situation in the West Bank with apartheid.
“There is a heavy push from the wider BDS movement to make this like apartheid South Africa,” he said. “The leftists pick up on that because it’s an advocacy issue, and a lot of their efforts are pushed toward political advocacy.”
In fact, members of the fledgling Jewish Voice for Peace may be influenced by that same push.
“Jewish Voice for Peace supports divestment from the occupation,” said Russ Greenleaf, a member of the group who came from Kentucky as an observer to the General Assembly. “We’re just saying the occupation must end so there can be peace and security for Israel. If we know it has to end, we shouldn’t be investing in it. This kind of divestment is good for the Palestinians, it’s good for the Israelis, and its good for the Presbyterians.”
“I think divestment is the most promising path to get the Palestinians and Israelis to the table as equal partners,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, director of campaigns for JVP.
Although JVP “doesn’t tend to use the word apartheid to describe the situation” in the West Bank, Wise said, she noted that Desmond Tutu did describe the situation as “parallel if not worse than apartheid.”
Although the organization is relatively small, members of the JVP turned out in force for the General Assembly, with many wearing signs over their chests reading “I’m young, proud, Jewish and for divestment.” About 10 members of JVP took the podium, imploring the Presbyterians to divest, many saying that doing so was “a Jewish value.”
“While I find it disturbing that 10 Jews would be promoting anti-Israel divestment, on the other hand, there’s no secret that there is diversity of opinion in the Jewish community,” said Jeffrey Cohan, director of community and public affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “While pro-divestment Jews are a very small minority, they obviously put forth a great effort to organize to get people here. The Jewish community was misrepresented this afternoon, and in a big way.”
The decision to not bring more anti-divestment Jews to the General Assembly was intentional, according to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
“The choice of fewer Jews rather than more was deliberate and unanimous,” he said. “There is a huge cadre of people (in the Presbyterian church) who are sympathetic to Israel. That makes this church very special.”
For the last several years, Adlerstein and other Jewish pro-Israel advocates have been engaged in bimonthly telephone conferences with leaders of the Presbyterian church on matters important to Israel. Those in the church who are anti-divestment decided “it was better to have the points presented by Presbyterians than Jews,” he said.
Adlerstein noted that the subject of divestment comes up at each General Assembly, and despite the interfaith dialogue, “we take one step forward, and two steps back every two years.”
“There are people who have managed to take an agenda of theirs and have maintained it front and center of the church, causing divisiveness,” he said, wondering why the suffering of Christians in other Middle Eastern countries was not given the same prominence at these meetings.
“Have you heard discussions about Christians in Iran and Pakistan, instead of focusing on olive trees getting uprooted in Israel?” he asked. “It’s a moral outrage.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)