Two discussions show breadth of disagreement on choices for the PC(USA) in Israel-Palestine

DETROIT — One massive, complex, generations-long catastrophe. Two widely divergent views on how Presbyterians might help make it at least a little better.

Sessions held Saturday by Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP) and the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) provided sharp reminders of the gulf between those views, and the difficulty of bridging it.

In what could prove to be a warm-up to a battle royal over divestment at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), speakers at a PFMEP breakfast claimed the denomination risks worsening the very political, social and moral dilemma it seeks to solve.

John Wimberly, co-moderator of PFMEP, said the publication several months ago of a study guide by the denomination’s Israel-Palestine Mission Network provides a measure of that risk. The study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” represents an effort “to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state,” and divestment amounts to a step in that direction, Wimberly said.

Speakers at a Riverside Conversation sponsored by MRTI, on the other hand, hewed more closely to the 2010 assembly’s call to put pressure on companies that allow use of their products or services in ways that contribute to violence or oppression in Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories.

Elizabeth (Terry) Dunning, the MRTI chair, said Saturday that the three companies now targeted for divestment — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions — “remain deeply, deeply involved in non-peaceful pursuits” and are unlikely to change. Asked by an audience member about the broader impact of divestment, she said her committee’s job was limited to carrying out the charge of the assembly — and it had done that.

The decision facing the assembly is a familiar one. Since 2004, the General Assembly has dealt with proposals to pull PC(USA) investments out of U.S.-based companies accused of abetting Israeli military and security forces in the alleged violation of Palestinians’ human rights.

In 2012, the assembly voted 333 to 331 against divestment after MRTI, the General Assembly Mission Council and the Middle East Peacemaking Committee had all recommended pulling Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation funds out of the same three companies that are now being targeted again. In 2012, the BOP’s share of those investments totaled more than $16 million. The foundation’s current investments in the three companies total about $3.8 million, according to Rob Bullock, foundation vice president for marketing.

Tom Taylor president and CEO of the Presbyterian Foundation, at Riverside Conversation Saturday morning.
Tom Taylor president and CEO of the Presbyterian Foundation, at Riverside Conversation Saturday morning.

The 2012 assembly adopted a minority report calling for positive investment in the occupied Palestinian territories. During Saturday’s MRTI session, Tom Taylor, president and CEO of the Presbyterian Foundation, presented a foundation video showing promising results of that positive investment policy.

“This is truly only one piece of the puzzle,” and the situation in Israel-Palestine remains “very difficult, and in some ways dire,” Taylor said.

Three guest speakers at the PFMEP gathering — a former Palestinian diplomat, an official of a Jewish organization that backs the creation of separate states for Israelis and Palestinians and a respected religion reporter — described the push for divestment within the PC(USA) as part of a larger effort to isolate Israel through a strategy of “boycott, divest and sanction.” They said Presbyterian participation in that effort was likely to both put peace farther out of reach and tarnish public perception of Presbyterians.

Ghaith Al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine and a former official of the Palestinian Authority, said peace and stability in Israel-Palestine will require the creation of two states — an option that “Zionism Unsettled” calls into question. He said casting Palestinians simply as victims and Israelis as victimizers risks putting a two-state solution out of reach.

Opponents of a two-state solution, including both some Israelis and some Palestinians, “are happy about” the boycott-divest-sanction (BDS) movement, Al-Omari said.

Rachel Lerner, senior vice president for community relations at J Street, an American Jewish lobby that seeks a two-state solution, said reading the Israel-Palestine Mission Network’s study guide filled her with “sadness, outrage, frustration, anger,” and only then did she decide to attend this year’s General Assembly. The divestment resolutions before the assembly “cannot be read outside the context of ‘Zionism Unsettled,’” she said.

Gustav Niebuhr, who wrote about religion for The Washington Post, The New York Times and other newspapers, said members of his own Presbyterian congregation had no idea that their denomination was being asked to target Israel through divestment or label it an apartheid state or change the hymnal to eliminate reference to a covenant with Israel.

Niebuhr, who now teaches at Syracuse University, said that if any of these measures passes this year, Presbyterians should prepare for some hard questions.

“Presbyterian congregants are going to be approached by reporters asking, ‘why has your denomination condemned Israel?’” he said.