The Justice Committee of the General Assembly Mission Council voted Feb. 16 to approve a recommendation to the General Assembly for divestiture, and the full council is expected to vote on the proposal Feb. 17.
The denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee is recommending that the PC(USA) divest its holdings in three companies – Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
MRTI, which is responsible for implementing the denomination’s policy for socially responsible investing, says products made by those companies are used in nonpeaceful ways in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that efforts to convince those companies to change their practices have failed.
The PC(USA)’s policies regarding Israel and divestment continue to be both closely watched and controversial – with interest groups weighing in both in support of the MRTI recommendation and in opposition. The question of Presbyterian policy towards Israel is likely to receive much scrutiny again at the 2012 General Assembly in Pittsburgh, and the rhetoric of the debate at times has been anything but nuanced.
The 2006 General Assembly determined that the denomination’s investments in the region should only be used for peaceful pursuits, and the assembly has instructed MRTI to follow a process of corporate engagement to assess whether firms doing business in Israel-Palestine are meeting that criterion, said Brian Ellison, a pastor from Kansas City who is chair of the MRTI committee.
Ellison tried to respond to some misunderstandings about the MRTI recommendations in a Feb. 16 presentation to the General Assembly Mission Council.
“We are not recommending a boycott of Israel,” Ellison said. “We are not recommending divestment of all companies that do business in Israel,” but only of three particular companies whose practices do not meet the criteria the General Assembly set up.
Council member Clark Cowden, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of San Diego, asked Ellison what the consequences might be for the PC(USA) of divestiture.
“The most important thing we can do is be very clear about what we are doing, and not allow that message to be misrepresented,” Ellison responded. “It’s not a statement against Israel or for Palestine, or vice-versa . . . We’ve never sided with one side or the other. The witness here is to peace and nonviolence on both sides.”
In recommending divestment in the three companies, MRTI has raised concerns about:
-Caterpillar, which sells equipment that Ellison said has been used to demolish Palestinian homes, knock down olive trees and construct homes in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
-Hewlett Packard, which makes biometric scanners used at Israeli military checkpoints and technology used by the Israeli defense forces.
-Motorola Solutions, which sells communications equipment used by the Israeli military.
Ellison outlined the efforts MRTI has made to communicate with each of these firms – including letters, conference calls, e-mails, face-to-face meetings and shareholder resolutions.
The PC(USA) has not endorsed a wholesale boycott of companies doing business in Israel, Ellison said. It continues to hold stock in other companies selling goods in that country, he said, including Microsoft, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, American Express and more.
“We are not calling for a broad divestment,” and the PC(USA) has made progress with other companies through engagement, Ellison said. Those companies, he said, are not being considered for divestiture.
“It is always the last step to recommend divestment,” one taken when efforts to communicate, negotiate and use shareholder resolutions to pressure companies have hit a dead end, Ellison said.
With divestment, “it means you don’t get to have that dialogue anymore,” Ellison said. “When you’re no longer a shareholder, you no longer have a place at that table . . . We recognize the seriousness of this step. But at the same time the step is not an unusual or abnormal step,” but part of the process the General Assembly has instructed MRTI to follow.
“We really have tried” to make progress with the three companies, Ellison said. “We have tried to have dialogue with these three companies and do not see the likelihood of a productive outcome.”