DETROIT — For the second time in two years, the question of whether to divest from three companies that supply equipment and services to Israeli defense and security forces is going to the full General Assembly with committee backing.
As happened in Pittsburgh in 2012, the GA committee that vets measures dealing with the Middle East recommends divestment.
The Middle East Issues Committee voted 45-20 Tuesday to endorse a measure requiring the church’s pension fund and the Presbyterian Foundation to rid themselves of investments in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions that total about $16.5 million.
That measure — an amended version of an overture from the Presbytery of New Covenant — also affirms Israel’s right to exist within secure borders and declares support for the creation of separate states for Israelis and Palestinians. In a reflection of some commissioners’ desire to avoid the appearance that the PC(USA) is an ally or dupe of an alleged international strategy aimed at isolating to Israel, the measure also denies any alignment with “the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”
As was the case two years ago, the recommendation to divest has the backing of several church panels — the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Committee, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and now the Middle East Committee.
Despite that record of support, approval by the full General Assembly this year is far from a sure bet. In Pittsburgh, a minority report calling for positive investment in the Palestine territories won a majority in the full General Assembly, which voted against divestment by a two-vote margin.
On Tuesday, Elizabeth (Terry) Dunning, the MRTI chair, said after the committee voted that she was glad its members had “thought and prayed long and hard about the right thing to do” and developed their own version of the measure.
“I think it shows the strength of our system” that they developed a form of divestment that made the most sense to them, she said. “And that’s the way it should be.”
Dunning, a lawyer from Salt Lake City, declined to predict what would happen to divestment on the General Assembly floor.
An array of familiar themes surfaced during the discussion on divestment. They included fear that the PC(USA) would be perceived as anti-Semitic and, on a more personal level, distress at the idea of alienating Jewish friends. They also included a determination to avoid giving in to those fears, if that meant dodging a moral call to stand against unjust treatment of Palestinian civilians.
Susan Andrews, who was moderator of the 215th General Assembly, said it was crucial to remember “there are two narratives here,” and both are heavily laden with suffering, faith and hope. “Divesting will divide and not unite,” she said.
The committee’s vice moderator, Virginia Sheets of Whitewater Valley Presbytery, on the other hand, urged members to make a hard call if faith demanded it.
“Jesus did not mind telling the Jews when they were wrong,” Sheets said early in Tuesday’s session. “So why are we so fearful?”
Other concerns that have held steady as the church has edged closer to divestment over the years include the difficulty of judging hard moral choices from afar — and the possible impact of divestment on people closer to home, especially employees of the targeted companies.
Apparently reacting to claims that Israelis have used Caterpillar equipment to demolish homes and uproot orchards, Robert Opie of the Stockton Presbytery said Tuesday that when he was a platoon leader in the Vietnam War, he was ordered to use Caterpillar equipment to destroy a Vietnamese cemetery to deny the enemy cover.
Opie said he felt pain, knowing the Vietnamese revere their ancestors. But “it wasn’t Caterpillar” creating that dilemma. To avoid the risk that its products might be used in such morally problematic ways, Caterpillar would have to “go out of the business of selling equipment,” he said.
A commissioner from Illinois, where Caterpillar has its headquarters, said divesting from the three companies would harm many faithful Christians among their employees.
If divestment takes place, it will have minimal financial impact either on the targeted companies or on Presbyterian investments. The Presbyterian Foundation, with $1.7 billion in assets, has $2.5 million invested in Caterpillar, $1.4 million in Hewlett-Packard and $16,000 in Motorola Solutions. The Board of Pensions’ $8.5 billion in assets includes $11.2 million in Caterpillar, $8 million in Hewlett-Packard and $621,000 in Motorola Solutions.
The board’s figures show those pension fund holdings amount to only 0.019 percent of the total value of Caterpillar stock, 0.015 percent of Hewlett-Packard stock and 0.004 percent of Motorola Solutions stock.
Advocates for divestment have repeatedly pointed out that the object is the moral stance, not the financial impact. On Tuesday, Bryan Franzen, a commissioner from San Jose Presbytery, took a somewhat different tack on the it’s-not-about-the-money theme.
“I am sick as a pastor of talking about money, because money is not God,” he said. “I’m sick of letting our money do the work. If we were really passionate about Israel, we would be sending people over there. … We have to get the topic off of money and back to Jesus Christ.”
On other measures before it, the Middle East Issues Committee:
- Disapproved an overture calling for a boycott of Hewlett-Packard products.
- Endorsed a call for a review of General Assembly policies favoring a two-state solution in Israel Palestine. An advocate for the measure, Walt Davis of San Francisco Presbytery, said facts on the ground in Israel/Palestine call into question the feasibility of separate states. But he added that creating a single state to encompass Jews and Palestinians “might bring even more bloodshed.”
- Approved a commissioners’ resolution declaring that “Zionism Unsettled,” a study guide prepared by the denomination’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network “does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” Since its release several months ago, the study guide has drawn fire from Jewish groups and some Presbyterians, who say it distorts Zionism, a term that refers to the struggle to establish and preserve a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. Speaking for the resolution Tuesday, Michael Gizzi of Great Rivers Presbytery said the study guide “damages legitimate efforts at peacemaking.”
- Approved a measure that condemns the alleged bulldozing of Palestinian-owned fruit trees and grapevines and another that calls for a study of violence against Israeli and Palestinian children.
If the PC(USA) goes through with divestment this year, it will become the first mainline Protestant denomination to divest based on concerns about companies’ role in alleged Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
The United Methodist Church, which has considered divesting from the same three companies that the PC(USA) has targeted, reported recently it has had “constructive” engagements with those companies. However, the United Methodist pension board recently decided to divest about $110,000 of stock in a security company, based in part on concerns about the company’s actions in Israel.
According to The New York Times, the chief investment officer of the Methodists’ pension board said the church is not supposed to invest in companies that profit from prisons. He told the Tmes that the impetus for divestment was the contracts the company, G4S, holds to supply prisons in Israel.