As the vote totals popped into view on video screens, a sharp intake of breath swept the assembly hall.
Then came a moment of stone silence.
If any of the hundreds of commissioners and observers gathered inside Detroit’s Cobo Center on June 20 uttered cries of approval or dismay, that collective gasp drowned them out.
And the moment of silence that followed it seemed to contain a question: What, exactly, have we done?
On the surface, the answer seemed clear. By a 310-303 vote — a margin almost as close as its rejection of divestment by two votes in 2012 — the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had voted to pull its foundation and pension money out of three American companies accused of abetting Israeli violation of Palestinians’ human rights.
The church’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Committee has for years prodded Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions to restrict the ways their products — including bulldozers, biometric scanners, surveillance equipment and smart phones — are used in occupied Palestinian territories. MRTI now says those companies’ complicity in oppression may be getting worse.
Also clear: The vote was one of the first by a mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S. to divest based solely on companies’ practices in Israel-Palestine. The United Methodist Church’s pension board said recently it was selling $110,000 worth of stock in a security company with contracts in Israel, but the main reason cited was a church stricture against investing in prisons anywhere.
PC(USA) officials say they have about $21 million invested in the three companies. They say a phased withdrawal of that amount will have scant effect either on the pension board and foundation or on the companies, for which PC(USA) holdings represent a fraction of 1 percent of total stock.
Divestment, in other words, amounts to a moral statement, not financial pressure.
Beyond that point, clarity gets harder to come by.
Addressing one matter of urgent concern, after that long moment of silence, General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada said: “In no way is this a reflection (of) our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.” Later, at a press conference, he said: “It breaks my heart for my Jewish brothers and sisters” for them to think that “we don’t love them devotedly.”
Some American Jewish groups weren’t feeling the love.
In an online statement, Jewish Council for Public Affairs President Rabbi Steve Gutow accused the PC(USA) of a “deep animus that a determined core group of church officials has demonstrated against both the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” In another online statement, Rabbi Noam Marans of the American Jewish Committee accused the denomination of “facilitating the delegitimization of Israel in the guise of helping Palestinians.”
But Jewish Voice for Peace, which opposes Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, returned Rada’s expression of love. In Detroit, members of the group wore black-and-white T-shirts printed, “Another Jew supporting divestment.”
In an interview, Rabbi Alissa Wise of the group’s rabbinical council took Rada’s love note a step further. She called the divestment measure itself “a declaration of love for the Jewish brothers and sisters.”
Divestment, she said, qualifies as a Tochechah — a sacred rebuke, as spelled out in Leviticus 19:17. When others go astray, she said, we should “redress them into a right path, and be there with them through process” of righting their wrong.
That, she said, is what Presbyterians are trying to do.
Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly, said he was reminded during a recent visit to Israel and Palestine that a love note is long overdue to another set of people with vital interests at stake. He told the assembly that a Palestinian “said to our delegation, ‘What we are asking is hardly heroic. We are simply asking you to stop funding our oppression.’”
Another point of less than crystal clarity lay behind an amendment saying the divestment measure “should not be seen as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”
Rabbi Marans wasn’t buying that disclaimer. He said church leaders had aligned with BDS and offered an “affront to all who are committed to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Frank Allen, a teaching elder in the Presbytery of Central Florida, warned the assembly that the church, despite its intentions, would be portrayed as divesting from Israel, not just three companies doing business there. “We’re already losing control of our message,” he said.
Also open to question are sections of the divestment measure that declare Israel’s right to exist within secure borders and reaffirm the PC(USA)’s longstanding commitment to separate, secure states for Israelis and Palestinians.
Those claims may seem at odds with the assembly’s order for a review to determine whether the church should instead “take a neutral stance” that lets Israelis and Palestinians decide for themselves whether a two-state solution would work. Walt Davis, an emeritus professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, spoke in favor of that review at a committee hearing.
“There are two competing claims to the same land and they should be answered by a two-state solution, something with which we have long agreed with the PC(USA)” their letter said.
During the week-long General Assembly, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel said the PC(USA) was on the wrong track if it thought divestment would work as intended.
In an interview, Daniel C. Kurtzer said divestment would lead to “no change at all” in the Israeli government’s actions in occupied Palestinian territories, which he said are driven by its security concerns. Kurtzer was U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005 and now teaches at Princeton University.
He said divestment would impact Israeli public opinion in a way “opposite of the way the church would like it impacted.” Most Israelis, he said “will simply say, ‘these are a bunch of hypocrites who don’t like us,’ and … they’ll just hunker down.”
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked his view of the Presbyterians’ divestment vote on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on June 22, his response seemed to accord with Kurtzer’s prediction.
“It should trouble all people of conscience
and morality because it’s so disgraceful,” Netanyahu said. OMcCormick
Davis was also project coordinator for “Zionism Unsettled,” a study guide by the denomination’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network that was condemned by Jews and some Presbyterians after its release in January. In an interview the following month, Davis said the document critiques the strain of Zionism that fuses religious ideology with political power, but others said it distorts Zionist and Israeli history.
In Detroit, commissioners disavowed the views in “Zionism Unsettled,” but — in what some viewed as another muddle — they left the Presbyterian Mission Agency free to distribute it, so long as all printed and online copies note the church’s disapproval of it. In a further twist, church officials announced June 27 that the study guide would no longer be sold on the PC(USA) website, though the mission network could continue to distribute it through other channels.
In an open letter to the church released before the assembly vote, more than 1,700 rabbis, cantors and Jewish seminary students called reconsideration of the commitment to a two-state solution a tragic mistake.