Divestment will be a hot issue again at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in June. The question in Detroit will be the same one narrowly defeated two years ago: whether to pull the church’s money out of Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
As was the case then, the church’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Committee recommends phased divestment. In February, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board sent that recommendation on to the General Assembly, where it will be taken up by the assembly’s Middle East Issues Committee.
In 2012, the General Assembly voted to pursue “creative engagement” and positive investment in Israeli-occupied Palestine, rather than divest what was then more than $17 million in Presbyterian Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation investments in the targeted firms.
But MRTI has kept its focus on Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, and it says its efforts to engage with those companies give no sign of leading to positive change.
According to MRTI, Israel uses Caterpillar heavy equipment to demolish Palestinian homes and build illegal settlements, Hewlett-Packard products in its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip and biometric scanning equipment and Motorola Solutions products for military communications and surveillance in settlements.
Those companies “remain entrenched in their involvement in non-peaceful pursuits,” and in fact may “have deepened their non-peaceful involvement,” the MRTI report says.
So the stage seems set for a renewal of the same heated argument over the same basic questions as those the assembly struggled with two years ago: Is there a sound moral basis for pulling church money out of these companies? And would divestment bring a just peace in Israel/Palestine any closer?
Christian Iosso, coordinator of the denomination’s advisory committee on social witness policy, said renewing the push for divestment is the right thing to do. Israel has added to the urgency, he said, by pressing ahead with settlement construc
tion, thereby placing a “two-state solution,” with separate states for Israelis and Palestinians, in jeopardy.
“It’s a question of how you really say as prayerfully and sincerely as we can, ‘friends, this enterprise of taking away this land and squeezing these people has got to stop,’” he said.
Some current and former members of Congress “look to the church to speak out,” and the dwindling Christian community in Palestine backs divestment, Iosso said. With pressures to act growing, Presbyterians “are grappling with whether or not we go beyond words only.”
Will divestment make a difference in Israeli behavior? Iosso thinks so.
“We know the intensity of opposition (to divestment) is a signal that our voice is taken seriously,” he said.
A factor that, so far, has not surfaced anywhere on the General Assembly’s agenda could affect commissioners’ decision on divestment. At least that’s the view of John Wimberly, co-moderator of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.
Wimberly said he has already seen the impact of a study guide issued in January by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA). Titled “Zionism Unsettled,” the 74-page document claims Israel has fostered a “toxic relationship between theology and politics,” a failing it calls too common in all three Abrahamic faiths.
Wimberly said National Capital Presbytery, of which he is a member, recently voted by a 2-1 margin against an overture that condemns Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. That overture, sponsored by Grace Presbytery, asks the General Assembly to declare that the Israeli government’s policies toward Palestinians “meet and surpass” United Nations and International Criminal Court definitions of apartheid.
Before his presbytery voted, “the debate was about the ‘Zionism Unsettled’ paper,” Wimberly said. Presbytery members said overtures that brandish the apartheid label or call for divestment “are actually about delegitimizing Israel and making it into a secular state,” rather than a Jewish state, he said.
Wimberly said he saw in that debate a marked shift from attitudes two years ago, when the presbytery narrowly defeated a divestment overture. Some presbytery members who earlier supported divestment have told him “this ‘Zionism Unsettled’ thing has just changed the equation,” he said.
(Grace Presbytery’s overture did win concurrence from the Synod of the Covenant, which qualifies it for presentation to the General Assembly.)
When the Middle East Issues Committee meets in Detroit, the study guide “clearly is going to be the elephant in the room, even if it’s not mentioned,” Wimberly said.
Iosso disagreed that the study guide would loom large at the assembly, though he said people who oppose divestment might try to use “Zionism Unsettled” to win support.
The study guide’s impact might help account for at least one notable absence at General Assembly. Officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who have argued against divestment at past assemblies, say they won’t be there this time.
The church’s failure to disavow the study guide is one reason, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization. Also, he said, there’s little point in making the same arguments again.
“We’ve been there and done that,” he said.
“It’s just going to be up to the good folk of the (Presbyterian) rank and file to figure this out on their own. We hope that they’ll make the right choice, obviously.”
As of April 8, the church’s General Assembly website pc-biz.org listed seven overtures assigned to the Middle East Issues Committee. All dealt with peacemaking efforts in Israel/Palestine.
Citing levels of violence against Christians in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Cooper called such a narrow focus a shandah — a Yiddish word meaning “shame.”
But Iosso said he expects the committee to take up issues ranging beyond Israeli oppression and Palestinian rights. The last General Assembly adopted a statement on Syria, and he feels certain the commissioners in Detroit will craft another one, he said.