LOUISVILLE – The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board voted Feb. 6 to send to the 2014 General Assembly a controversial recommendation that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) divest in three companies doing business in Israel-Palestine.
The denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee is recommending that the 2014 General Assembly divest in three companies that MRTI has determined are engaged in non-peaceful pursuits in the region: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
Elizabeth Terry Dunning, chair of the MRTI committee, acknowledged during a presentation to the board’s Justice Committee that continuing to recommend divestment has been a “difficult and painful process” for the PC(USA).
The 2012 General Assembly debated the issue fiercely, ultimately voting 333-331 not to divest, but to pursue “creative engagement” and positive investment in Israeli-occupied Palestine instead. Now MRTI is bringing another divestment recommendation, stating that it has followed the General Assembly’s directive that it use the corporate engagement process to make sure the PC(USA) invests only in companies engaged in peaceful pursuits in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
MRTI writes in its report that it has sought dialogue with Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard for years and has not succeeded in convincing the firms to change their practices. “We have come to the conclusion regretfully that after a decade of engagement, there has been no change, and we have been told explicitly in some instances that there will be no change in the future,” Dunning said.
MRTI contends that the Israeli Defense Forces have used Caterpillar-made equipment to destroy Palestinian homes, tear down olive trees and build a separation barrier that prevents Palestinians from entering Israeli-occupied territory. MRTI says the Israeli Defense Forces have used Hewlett-Packard technology in a naval blockade of Gaza and Motorola Solutions technology to conduct surveillance around Palestinian communities.
Matt Schramm, a pastor from Michigan and chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, asked the board members to consider whether they thought MRTI had done the work the General Assembly had instructed it to do – not whether board members necessarily agree with the recommendation. “Our question is, ‘Has MRTI done its work?’ ” Schramm said.
Roger Gench, a pastor from Washington D.C. and a former chair of the Justice Committee, said “I believe MRTI has done its job,” but he worries about the potential impact of divestment on Presbyterian-Jewish relations. “MRTI has done good work, and I cannot help but affirm this work,” Gench said. “What I regret is something larger, much larger. It seems to me that our interfaith initiative as Presbyterians has moved from something robust 20 years ago to something much, much diminished today. Whether we can sustain our relations with the Jewish community out of a vote like this is a good question.”
Raafat Zaki, co-chair of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, responded that “the Jewish community is not homogenous and it is not of one mind” – and some Jews would support the MRTI recommendations.
Board member and mid-council executive Clark Cowden of California asked whether the PC(USA) might be taking the wrong approach – having tried and failed for 10 years to convince the three firms to change their approaches. If he’d worked on a project unsuccessfully for a decade, “I’d have to ask myself if I was wrong,” Cowden said.
Chad Herring, a board member and pastor from Kansas City, said he was trained as an ethicist. The PC(USA)’s ethical policy is that the denomination will not profit from non-peaceful pursuits. “For me, the question is ‘Why should there be an exception in this case?’ ” Herring said. “Ought there to be an exemption to our ethics?”
Having served as a commissioner to the 2012 General Assembly, Herring said he understands the difficulty and sensitivity of the issue. With the recommendation going forward, “I pray for the assembly” as it prepares to consider the controversial divestment recommendation.