The 2012 General Assembly is being asked to consider a controversial recommendation that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) divest its holdings in three companies doing business in Israel — companies that a church committee on socially responsible investing has determined are engaged in “nonpeaceful” activities.
The General Assembly Mission Council voted Feb. 17 to approve a recommendation to the General Assembly for divestiture.
The denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee is recommending that the PC(USA) divest its holdings in 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 the companies to change their practices have failed.
Brian Ellison, a pastor from Kansas City who is chair of the MRTI committee, emphasized that the PC(USA) continues to invest in other companies involved in Israel, and that MRTI is not calling for any kind of broader boycott.
“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 companies whose practices do not meet the criteria the General Assembly set up.
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 toward Israel is likely to receive much scrutiny again at the 2012 General Assembly in Pittsburgh, and already the proposal is generating heat.
“I think what’s proposed is ineffective and counterproductive,” and actually goes against the interest of peacemaking, said council member Kears Pollock of Pennsylvania, a retired corporate executive. Some of the products made by the three companies may actually have saved lives, Pollock said.
The divestment proposal “accuses almost every businessman sitting in our pews across this nation, it accuses every family, every organization” that holds investments, he said. Instead of that kind of judgment, Pollock said, “I’ll be judged by God.”
Council member Teresa Bryce Bazemore of Pennsylvania cautioned that “this issue has been painted with too broad a brush … We are continuing to invest in many companies that are involved in peaceful pursuits in Israel and Palestine.”
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.
Council member Clark Cowden, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of San Diego, asked Ellison during a presentation Feb. 16 what the consequences of divestiture might be for the PC(USA).
“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,” Ellison said — and there are other companies with which the PC(USA) has made progress through the process of engagement that are not currently being considered for divestiture.
“It is always the last step to recommend divestment,” one taken when efforts to negotiate with, communicate with, and pressure the companies through shareholder resolutions 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.”
Council member Jean Demmler of Colorado supports the divestment recommendation.
“I agree, it’s a risky thing to do,” Demmler said. “We may cause more dissension. I’m sorry about that. I want us to be in accord.”
But Demmler said MRTI has followed a “good process,” and she’s convinced that the PC(USA) — a denomination committed to peacemaking —should not profit from the use being made of the products sold by these three firms.