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Head of major branch of American Judaism offers to bring church leaders to meeting with Netanyahu (Updated)

Stephen Choi, moderator of the Committee on Middle East Issues .
Stephen Choi, moderator of the Committee on Middle East Issues .

DETROIT — In an appeal to the General Assembly to reject a divestment proposal, the head of the largest branch of Judaism in North America offered Thursday to arrange a meeting between leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In brief comments on the floor of the General Assembly, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said he was willing to invite PC(USA) Moderator Heath Rada and Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons to join him in a meeting with Netanyahu next week — provided the assembly rejects divestment. Jacobs said he was flying to Israel later on Thursday.

“If we are truly partners and you disapprove this divestment overture I look forward to sitting with your leadership in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem,” Jacobs said.  “You can chose partnership and engagement, or you can choose separation and divestment.”

Jacobs said the “overwhelming majority” of Jews in the United States favor a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with separate, secure states for Israelis and Palestinians. He said the Union of Reform Judaism — which has 900 congregations and an estimated 1.5 million members — has a long-standing policy of opposition to the Israeli settlements.

“However, we oppose divestment and BDS because it undermines the two-state solution we so desperately need,” Jacobs told the assembly. (BDS refers to a reputed international strategy of boycotts, divestment and sanctions aimed at putting economic pressure on Israel to moderate its policies toward Palestinians.)

The General Assembly is set to consider on June 20 two conflicting recommendations regarding a proposed divestment of the denomination’s investments in three companies accused of abetting Israeli oppression of Palestinians. By a 45-20 vote on June 17, the assembly’s Committee on Middle East Issues sent forward a measure requiring phased divestment of Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation investments in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.

That recommendation is based on years of efforts by the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Committee to alter the three companies’ practices in Israel and Palestine through appeals and shareholder resolutions. MRTI recommended divestment to the General Assembly in 2012 and again this year, claiming its negotiations with the three companies had been unproductive and further efforts were likely to lead nowhere.

Speaking in favor of divestment on Thursday, Rifat Kassis, a Palestinian Christian and human rights activist, told assembly commissioners that Israeli encroachment on Palestinian land has placed a two-state solution to the conflict at risk. Palestinian Christians have chosen nonviolent resistance to this threat, and divestment fits with that approach, he said.

Four members of the Middle East Issues Committee have sent the assembly a minority report that forbids PC(USA) divestment from the three companies that the pro-divestment resolution targets. The minority report also asks that MRTI to “continue its conversations” — adding that Hewlett-Packard has expressed willingness to continue.

In a five-page letter dated June 15 and addressed to Stephen Choi, the committee’s moderator, Zoe McMahon, Hewlett-Packard’s director of global social and environmental responsibility, took issue with claims by the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee that the company has failed to respond meaningfully to the church’s appeals to change its business practices in Israel. MRTI says the Israeli Defense Forces have used Hewlett-Packard technology in a naval blockade of Gaza.

McMahon’s letter says the company has “an uncompromising commitment to human rights,” has responded to the church’s inquiries and shareholder resolutions in good faith and “has reexamined and redefined its human rights policies in response to PC(USA)’s concerns.” It says the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had found that Hewlett-Packard had already “substantially implemented” a proposal from the PC(USA), making a shareholder resolution unnecessary.

Hewlett-Packard “stands ready to provide further information and to engage in constructive dialogue in an effort to resolve any remaining questions PC(USA) may have,” the letter states.

 

One of the four sponsors of the minority report, Frank Allen a teaching elder in the Presbytery of Central Florida, said Wednesday that they wanted to present the assembly with “two clear choices, because we have two distinct views” on whether divestment is the right choice. “It is my hope that we can present this in a way that models the peacemaking that is important to both sides,” Allen said.

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