Among mainline churches, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has led the way in considering divestment as a means of defusing hostility and violence in Israel-Palestine.
For eight years, while some other denominations have brought divestment to an up-or-down vote, the PC(USA) has pondered it and prodded companies to prevent non-peaceful uses of their wares.
Now those charged with shaping proposals on the issue are asking the 220th General Assembly to take a momentous stand — one likely to elicit passionate responses within the church, in the Middle East and among the Jewish and Palestinian communities in the United States.
Based on a recommendation by the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Committee, the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) voted in February to ask the General Assembly to withdraw church investments from three companies — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
The GAMC report says that Caterpillar’s D-9 bulldozers were weaponized and deployed in the 2009 Gaza War and that Israeli forces use Hewlett Packard products in their naval blockade of Gaza and in scanning equipment that restricts Palestinians’ movement.
The report says Motorola Solutions’ involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory has “lessened in some important ways,” but still the company refuses to discuss “its involvement in non-peaceful pursuits.”
Brian Ellison, a pastor from Kansas City, Mo., who chairs the MRTI, has stressed the limited nature of the divestment proposal.
“We are not recommending a boycott of Israel” or any divestment step that goes beyond the three targeted companies, Ellison said in February.
Some Christian leaders have called for aggressive use of divestment against Israel. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said divestment had a big impact on apartheid South Africa and could have a similar decisive effect in Israel-Palestine.
So far, the PC(USA)’s approach to divestment has remained cautious and incremental.
In 2004, the 216th General Assembly instructed MRTI to begin a process of “phased, selective divestment” from corporations doing business in Israel. MRTI first reviewed the assembly’s positions on obstacles to peace in Israel and Palestine, then tried to identify corporations that contributed to those obstacles.
MRTI chose five companies to engage — Caterpillar, Citigroup, ITT Industries, Motorola and United Technologies. In the years since, MRTI has met with officials of those companies and with the presbyteries where the companies are headquartered.
The Presbyterian initiative caught the attention of the World Council of Churches. In 2005, the council’s central committee urged its member churches to consider divesting from companies doing business in Israel.
In 2005, the United Church of Christ called for the use of economic leverage, including selective divestment, to promote peace in the Middle East.
Also in 2005, both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church USA considered but rejected divestment.
In 2006, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to end financial investments in companies supporting Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Caterpillar was one of the companies the synod targeted.
At the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, held in Tampa, Fla., in May of this year, the 1,000 delegates voted on two resolutions that called for divestment from companies accused of contributing to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Both were rejected by 2-1 margins.
The Methodists also rejected similar resolutions at their last General Conference in 2008.
Meanwhile, the PC(USA) has refrained from voting on divestment, though the church took a step in that direction at the 219th General Assembly, where commissioners voted to denounce Caterpillar for its “continued profit-making from non-peaceful uses of a number of its products.”
Finally, last September, MRTI recommended divestment from the three companies. Ellison called that the “logical conclusion” to what the General Assembly had asked his committee to do.