After a decade of debate over how to use church resources to assist with the situation in Israel and Palestine, the governing body of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., or PC(USA), voted on Friday to divest from three companies that provide Israel with equipment used in the occupation of Palestinian territory.
The measure, which passed by just 7 votes (310 to 303), was the result of a longstanding — and often controversial — effort by the church to discern how best to address the politically and religiously tricky situation that is the occupied Palestinian territories. According to the measure, the PC(USA), the largest Presbyterian group in the United States, ordered the Presbyterian Foundation and the Board of Pensions of the PC(USA) to divest about $21 million from the three businesses — Caterpillar, Inc., Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions — because their products are being used to bulldoze Palestinian homes, run checkpoints, and construct the border between Israel and Gaza. The denomination, which has voted on the issue of divestment at past assemblies (a similar measure failed by just 2 votes in 2010), originally attempted to simply lobby the companies to change their business practices. But when their efforts proved fruitless, they turned to divestment.
“In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish brothers and sisters,” said Heath Rada, the newly-elected moderator of the assembly, after the vote tally was announced.
Various interest groups in the United States and abroad closely observed the vote last night via livestream, with people and organizations partial to both Israel and Palestine weighing in on Twitter using the #GA221 hashtag. Jewish groups in particular expressed concern that the church’s divestment strategy could signal a lack of support for Israel among American Christians, particularly because the vote appeared connected to the larger “Boycott, Divest and Sanctions” (BDS) movement that negatively targets Israel. However, the language of the church measure insisted that the vote was not a “divestment from the State of Israel,” and stated that their efforts are not intended to be in “alignment with or endorsement of” the larger BDS movement. The measure also affirmed “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation,” endorsed a two-state solution, called for interfaith dialogue in the middle east, encouraged Presbyterians to visit the Holy Land, and recommended “positive investment” strategies in the region.
Still, many Jewish groups remain staunchly opposed to the divestment strategy as a general rule, and the PC(USA) hurt its standing with some in the Jewish community earlier this year when the church’s Isreal/Palestine Mission Network published a document, entitled “Zionism Unsettled,” which challenged the historical and theological foundations of Zionism. As a result, some Jewish groups directly lobbied the PC(USA) and its members in the lead up to the vote: More than 1,700 Rabbis signed a letter asking the denomination to oppose divestment, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke before the assembly earlier this week. Jacobs asked the Presbyterians to avoid creating a “painful rift” with the Jewish community, and offered to set up a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the PC(USA) if the assembly voted down the measure.
“A vote for divestment will cause a painful rift with the great majority of the Jewish community,” Jacobs said. “If we are truly partners and you disapprove this divestment overture, I look forward to sitting with your leadership in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. You can choose partnership and engagement or you can choose separation and divestment.”
But not all Jewish groups opposed the church’s decision. The Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish grassroots organization that “recognizes the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians for security and self-determination,” celebrated the vote.
“This is a turning point,” read an official statement from the Jewish Voice for Peace. “The Presbyterians’ decision is a major development in the longstanding work to bring the US into alignment with the rest of the world.”
The PC(USA)’s divestment vote comes on the heels of a similar move by the United Methodist Church (UMC), albeit on a smaller scale. The UMC’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits announced last week that it will sell its stock in the U.K.-based G4S security firm because it was connected with “human rights violations related to Israel’s illegal settlement.” The UMC is said to have $110,000 invested in the company, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also divested from G4S earlier this month.