BIRMINGHAM — With remarkably little debate, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted 403 to 91 to approve a new statement on Presbyterian investment in Israel.
The statement — which some supporters described as a careful compromise — acknowledges the “hurt and misunderstanding” the General Assembly caused in 2004 by its actions on divestment.
It removes the controversial instructions that the 2004 assembly issued — to “initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” — and replaces that with language saying the PC(USA) will invest “in only peaceful pursuits” in Israel and the surrounding region.
But that change in language does not halt the ongoing interaction the PC(USA) is having, resulting from those instructions, with five particular companies.
Supporters of the assembly’s action hope the new language might, somehow, take the sting out of the action the 2004 assembly took — but also strike the right balance regarding policy in a way that represents historic Presbyterian commitments to both Israel and to the Palestinian people.
While the new statement doesn’t halt the process of conversation with certain companies doing business in Israel that could, potentially, result at some point in a recommendation for divestment, it changes language regarding that process that some critics felt unfairly singled out Israel.
“We’re extremely grateful for the change of course,” said David Bernstein, representing the American Jewish Committee. While divestment can still be considered, “they’re not going to do it in a way that singles out Israel for special sanctions,” Bernstein said.
Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, said during a news conference that the statement uses “new vocabulary” to encourage a two-state solution in the Middle East, to call for an end to violence in the region and to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, and to encourage the PC(USA) to “invest for peace.”
And Kirkpatrick said the statement put the 2004 assembly’s divestment action “in a context” that “what we’re concerned about is investing in peace, investing in justice. It’s not that we’re seeking divestment. That’s always the last possible option.”
The PC(USA)’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee has identified five companies in which it’s considering divesting because of those firms’ involvements in Israel in ways it says may contribute to the violence in the region.
MRTI has tried to initiate conversations with those companies. The earliest it could bring any recommendation to divest — and Kirkpatrick stressed that would be a last resort — would be to the assembly in 2008.
Regarding the security wall being built in Israel, the new statement says the assembly “does not believe the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should tell a sovereign nation whether it can protect its borders or handle matters of national defense,” and says the problem with the security wall is its location.
The assembly said it supports “fair criticism” of the wall for encroaching into Palestinian territory, and says “to the extent that the security barrier violates Palestinian land that was not part of Israel prior to the 1967 war, the barrier should be dismantled and relocated.”
It also calls for “an end to all violence and terror against Palestinian and Israeli citizens.”
The statement the assembly approved was written by a writing team from the assembly’s Peacemaking and International Issues committee. Committee member Noel Anderson of California told the assembly that “we pored over every word, we prayed” — and when the assembly voted after less than a half-hour of discussion, it seemed clear that the body didn’t want to disrupt what Susan Andrews, a former General Assembly moderator, described in an interview as a fragile, careful compromise that took into account the range of views on Israel and Palestine.
“It was a true compromise, in that nobody got exactly what they wanted,” Andrews said. “I really do see this as the beginning of a fresh season of dialogue and partnership.”
Jim Roberts, representing the Committee to End Divestment Now, said: “This is a wonderful moment in the history of this church. The people from the pews brought this issue back to this assembly,” by submitting more than 20 overtures. “They spoke loudly and clearly for balance and fairness.”
The assembly’s decision two years ago to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment took a lot of people by surprise — including Jews disconcerted that the PC(USA) would do such a thing and Presbyterians who had no idea their denomination was considering anything this controversial.
It was clear this time around that divestment was very much on the agenda — commissioners coming to Alabama were greeted by billboards and advertisements on divestment.
“We received dozens of pieces of mail and communication about this matter,” said Joan Gray, a pastor from Atlanta who was elected moderator of this assembly. “For myself, the effect was to make me think about the whole picture and to pray a lot about this . . . We were not in the dark on anything.”
The language the assembly passed June 21 acknowledges that the assembly’s actions in 2004 “caused hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion. We are grieved by the pain that this has caused, accept responsibility for the flaws in our process, and ask for a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.”
Gretchen Graf, a minister from Northern Plains presbytery, was moderator of the assembly’s Peacemaking and International Issues committee, which considered the divestment issue and worked hard to present a near-unanimous report — a carefully crafted consensus which one commissioner described as “a fragile document.”
This assembly can’t undo the actions of a previous assembly — it can’t rewrite history. But it did vote to issue new language urging that the PC(USA)’s financial investments, “as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, be invested in only peaceful pursuits, and affirm that the customary corporate engagement process of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investments of our denomination is the proper vehicle for achieving this goal.”
Some commissioners questioned whether the statement voices strong enough support for Palestinian Christians — one amendment that was proposed said “we remain keenly aware of the deep and chronic pain of the Palestinian people.”
But Bruce Ogden, an elder from California who was a member of the committee, warned that “we drafted a document, a fragile document, which reflected a consensus and addressed the issues. To begin to dismantle this by amendment is a very dangerous thing.”