General Assembly narrowly approves divestment, draws immediate fire from American Jewish groups

DETROIT — Two years ago, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) stepped up to the verge of divestment. Its members looked past that threshold — and took a cautious step back.

Friday, showing the same mix of impatience, caution and regret for the pain the decision would inevitably cause, commissioners stepped up to that same threshold. This time, by a margin almost as close as its rejection of divestment by two votes in 2012, the assembly stepped over it.

TI0A4406The commissioners voted 310-303 for a phased withdrawal of roughly $21 million in investments in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. In doing so, they made the PC(USA) the first mainline Protestant denomination to divest based on corporations’ refusal to change their business practices in Israel-Palestine.

Since 2012, the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) has recommended divestment from those three companies. The committee says the Israelis have used Caterpillar-made equipment to destroy Palestinian homes, tear down olive trees and build illegal settlements, roads that only Israelis can use, and a separation barrier — all on Palestinian land.

MRTI says Hewlett-Packard supplies biometric scanners used only on Palestinians and equipment used in a naval blockage of Gaza. Motorola Solutions supplies surveillance systems for settlements and ruggedized smart phones for the Israeli Defense Forces.

Elizabeth (Terry) Dunning, the MRTI chair, told the assembly Friday that her panel was recommending divestment as a last resort after years of failed efforts to get the companies to change their practices, and with no sign that further efforts by MRTI would be of any use.

She and other speakers Friday stressed that the move to divest was aimed narrowly at those three companies.

“We remain invested in many American companies doing peaceful work” in Israel-Palestine, including Coca-Cola, IBM, Procter & Gamble and Oracle. “That will not change.”

The recommendation for divestment reached the assembly floor after passing in the assembly’s Middle East Issues Committee earlier in the week.

In 2012, the committee that dealt with Israel-Palestine issues also recommended divestment, but several members of that panel drew up an alternate proposal that mandated “creative engagement” and positive investment in Israeli-occupied Palestine. The General Assembly then bought into that approach and voted 333-331 against divestment.

This year, four members of the Middle East Issues Committee tried the same parliamentary strategy — a minority report — that worked in 2012. Their measure would have forbidden divestment from the three targeted companies and urged MRTI to continue its efforts to alter corporate policies in Israel-Palestine.

The spokesman for the minority report, Frank Allen of the Presbytery of Central Florida, told the commissioners that divestment efforts had divided the denomination for 10 years, leading Presbyterians to campaign against each other rather than work together for peace and justice. “We need a reconciled and reconciling church,” he said.

Allen said the United Methodist, Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have shunned divestment. He said divestment by the PC(USA) would alienate a large part of the American Jewish community and that the church, despite its intentions, would be portrayed as divesting from Israel, not just three American companies doing business there.

“We’re already losing control of our message,” he said.

Allen said the divestment proposal disregards Israel’s legitimate security concerns and would do nothing to advance the cause of peace.

One commissioner watches the results of the minority report vote
One commissioner watches the results of the minority report vote

But the minority report strategy didn’t work this time. Commissioners turned that report down by a vote of 316-269, leaving the committee’s call for divestment as the sole measure on the assembly floor.

But before that vote, a parade of speakers — commissioners, youth delegates, theology students and former moderators of the PC(USA) — lined up before microphones throughout the convention hall in Detroit’s Cobo Center. They probed the merits, defects and possible unintended consequences of divestment, and they suggested ways they thought it could be improved.

There were emotionally charged moments that dealt with an offer from a prominent figure in American Judaism, the distress divestment would cause in one young man’s family and the life-changing impact the church’s divestment from companies doing business in South Africa had made on a native of that country.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, told the assembly Thursday that he was about to fly to Israel and would arrange for Presbyterian Moderator Heath Rada and Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons to meet with the Israeli prime minister next week — but only if the assembly voted against disinvestment.

Former Moderator Susan Andrews speaks against divestment followed by Rick Ufford-Chase in favor
Former Moderator Susan Andrews speaks against divestment followed by Rick Ufford-Chase in favor

Susan Andrews, general presbyter of the Hudson Valley Presbytery and a former moderator of the PC(USA) called Jacobs’ offer “extraordinary” and a potential “game-changer.” Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Seminary, said Jacobs had offered a chance “to speak truth to power,” and an exit ramp from “the money road” — a route she said would “not get us where we need to go.” Brenson Bishop, a teaching elder from the Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, said Jacobs had “extended a hand,” and if the church rejected it, “it’s an insult.”

Greg Bolt, a teaching elder from Homestead Presbytery, scoffed at such claims, and many commissioners seemed to share his sentiment.

“I really don’t think that you going in and talking to Benjamin Netanyahu is going to make any difference,” Bolt said. By voice vote, the assembly rejected an amendment that would have directed the two leaders to accept Jacobs’ offer, given the condition that they also drop the divestment proposal.

Patrick Lane, a Youth Advisory Delegate from the Saint Andrew Presbytery, said family bridges two faiths: His mother is Jewish. Divestment “will put a strain on the Presbyterian-Jewish relation,” he said, adding that it would limit the church’s role in ending the conflict in Israel-Palestine.

But Andries Coetzee, a teaching elder from Muskingum Valley Presbytery, said the church had “put me on the road of giving me back my humanity” when it approved a similar divestment initiative aimed at the apartheid regime in his native country, South Africa. He and other Afrikaners “realized that we were on the wrong path,” he said. “And today I’m asking you to do that again.”

The assembly approved an amendment offered by Bill Ward, a teaching elder from Inland Northwest Presbytery, that said the church was not divesting from Israel and was not aligned with the so-called “BDS” movement, a reputed international strategy to squeeze Israel economically through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

The church’s divestment measure should be “understood for what it is and not for what it is not,” Ward said. It is not motivated by political advocacy, “and it is decidedly not anti-Semitic,” he said.

Another amendment was inserted that affirms the church’s commitment to interfaith dialogue and to partnerships with American Jews and Muslims and Palestinian Christians. Commissioners rejected a proposal to require the church to invest at least as much money in companies working toward peaceful solutions in Israel as it was pulling out of the three companies. A Presbyterian Foundation official told them it would be hard to make that happen.

The PC(USA)’s policies on socially responsible investment date from the early 1970s. The church’s roadmap for corporate engagement leads to divestment only if all other approaches failed.

The denomination used divestment in the campaign against apartheid, the former system of race-based restriction of legal rights in South Africa in the 1980s. The denomination also refrains from investing in companies whose primary focus is some kinds of weaponry and from firms centered around gambling, alcohol or tobacco.

In 2004, the General Assembly instructed MRTI to scrutinize companies doing business in Israel-Palestine, and the divestment vote Friday marks a culmination of that process. MRTI has reported successful interaction with some companies — including Citigroup, which reportedly agreed to review its practices to prevent money transfers to terrorist groups — but has repeatedly reported no progress with Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.

Several Jewish groups reacted immediately, and vehemently, to the divestment vote.

A statement from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs called the decision outrageous and disappointing. But it quoted JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow as saying his group was not surprised, “given the deep animus that a determined core group of church officials has demonstrated against both the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” He said the divestment vote “will undoubtedly have a devastating impact” on relations between mainstream Jewish groups and the PC(USA).

A statement from the American Jewish Committee quotes Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, as saying the PC(USA) “is facilitating the delegitimization of Israel in the guise of helping Palestinians.”

Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper said he was “shocked beyond words.” Cooper said that, “with the crimes against humanity occurring in Syria and Iraq, with the Middle East in chaos, with African Christians regularly selected by terrorists for murder because of their faith, PC(USA) chooses to flex its moral muscles by aiding and abetting those pledged to do away with the Jewish State.”

At least one Jewish group that has had a prominent presence at recent General Assemblies welcomed the divestment vote. A statement from Jewish Voice for Peace, which opposes Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories, quotes Rabbi Alissa Wise, co-founder of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, as honoring “the hundreds of commissioners who voted to divest from American companies profiting from the Israeli occupation — alongside other recommendations for reaching a just peace. After 10 years of engagement with companies, task forces, study, prayer, and dialogue, they have taken the next step, reflecting a firm, bold commitment to realizing a just peace in Israel/Palestine.”

Immediately after announcing the results of the vote, General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada said, “This is very indicative of our love for all of these people.” He pleaded with the members of the press to let our Jewish neighbors know “how much we love and care for them.” In a press conference held after the vote, he said, “it breaks my heart for my Jewish brothers and sisters” for them to think that “we don’t love them devotedly.”