PITTSBURGH, July 5, 2012 – The 220th General Assembly will pursue positive investment in Israeli-occupied Palestine rather than withdraw church investments from three companies accused of complicity in the Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
Barring some last-minute course reversal, the least that’s where matters stood after commissioners by voted by an extraordinarily tiny margin late Thursday to commit the church to work out plans over the next two years to raise money and invest it in the West Bank. That decision reverses a recommendation by an assembly committee earlier this week that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) divest, and was an issue closely watched by Jewish groups and the secular news media.
The main proposal sent to the assembly floor by the Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee this week would have made the PC(USA) the first mainline Protestant denomination in the United States to divest from companies that sell products that the Israelis use in security operations that target Palestinians.
The resolution called for a phased withdrawal of more than $17 million in Presbyterian Board of Pensions and Foundation investments from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. The proposal had the backing of both the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Committee, which tried for eight years to persuade the three companies to stop non-peaceful uses of their products, and of the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC).
But in a move that caught some by surprise, several commissioners pushed for consideration of an amended minority report from the Middle East Committee that called for “creative engagement” and investment rather than divestment. By a razor-thin margin – 333-331, with two abstentions – the assembly voted to make the minority report the main proposal, bumping the divestment measure out of the top spot.
Blake Brinegar of New Covenant Presbytery, one of seven sponsors the minority report, said on the assembly floor that “strategic investment is a pathway to peace,” whereas “divestment creates no funds that will be available for investment in Palestinian lives.”
Robert Murphy, a teaching elder also from New Covenant Presbytery, proposed an amendment – adopted by the assembly – that instructs the GAMC to create a process to raise funds to invest in the West Bank, with the program to be inaugurated no later than the meeting date of the 2014 General Assembly.
Debate over which course to pursue – creative investment or divestment – stretched past 10 p.m., with commissioners queued behind microphones to speak, hoisting colored signs indicating which position they supported.
Finally the commissioners, informed that time was running short before the last shuttle buses would depart the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for their hotels, voted 369-290, with eight abstentions, to adopt the report calling for engagement and investment.
That means divestment from companies selling products to Israel is off the table for this General Assembly unless a commissioner who voted for the substitute measure asks that the assembly reconsider the question.
Jack Baca of San Diego Presbytery, a teaching elder and moderator of the Middle East Committee, told reporters after the assembly adjourned Thursday that, while events on the assembly floor might seem indicative of division in the church, in fact the assembly was unified in its desire for peace, security of Israel and independence for Palestinians.
The apparent division was “simply a matter of the best strategy that the church can pursue to help attain those goals,” Baca said.
The resolution the assembly adopted grew out of an overture from Philadelphia Presbytery that the Middle East Committee had endorsed, along with the resolution to pursue divestment. As reshaped in the minority report, it calls for “a positive and creative course of action” to diminish conflict and “a plan of active investment in projects that will support collaboration” among Christians, Jews and Muslims.
“The committee was very clear about its desire to promote positive engagement and positive investment and not just divestment,” Baca said. Realizing that many Jews would take divestment from companies that help ensure Israel’s security as “a slap in the face,” members of the committee were looking for a way to say “yes on divestment and yes on investment, if you will,” Baca said – although the full assembly chose a different path.
The implications of Thursday night’s decision for the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) process are unclear.
Since its creation in 1972, the MRTI Committee has monitored companies in which the church holds stock or bonds for the effects of their business practices on human rights. MRTI’s chair, teaching elder Brian Ellison of Kansas City, said the church’s efforts have persuaded hotels and airlines to combat human trafficking, closed sweatshops along the U.S.-Mexican border and persuaded Citibank to safeguard against money transfers to Palestinian terrorists.
With about $2 trillion in investments in ethically-screened portfolios, the church is “connected to corporate activity all over the world,” Ellison said. Its divestment list numbers hundreds of companies – many of them placed there because they fall within commercial sectors that conflict with Christian values, including tobacco, alcohol, gaming and large-scale defense contracting.
“We seek to improve the double bottom line,” encompassing both financial goals and ethical values, he said.
In 2004, the Presbyterian General Assembly instructed MRTI to start a process of phased, selective divestment. Since then, MRTI has focused its efforts on a handful of companies – succeeding with some, but failing with Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions despite years of effort.
According to MRTI, the Israeli Defense Forces have used Caterpillar equipment, including giant D-9 bulldozers, to demolish Palestinian homes, uproot generations-old olive trees and build a separation barrier meant to exclude Palestinians from Israeli-occupied territory. MRTI says the Israeli Defense Forces have used Hewlett-Packard technology in a naval blockade of Gaza and Motorola Solutions technology for surveillance around Palestinian communities.
Two years ago, at the 219th General Assembly, some commissioners favored divestment from those three companies, but Ellison held out hope that they would yet see the error of their ways. This week, he told commissioners he no longer sees any possibility of that.
Asking for divestment “is a last resort,” Ellison said, but it’s also “a normal part of our corporate engagement.”
Now, eight years after getting its orders to take measured steps toward divestment, MRTI has recommended that final step. It’s a step the General Assembly still is not ready to take.