Presbyterian Divestment Has Deep Historical Roots

The Presbyterians’ Palestinian sympathies can be traced back to the 19th century. Mainline American Protestant churches at that time specialized in certain world regions, and the Presbyterians focused on Palestine. In fact, universities like Bir Zeit in the West Bank and the American University of Beirut were founded by Presbyterians, according to Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee.

As Presbyterians and their Protestant brethren began to identify with Palestinian Christians and Arab Muslims, they looked askance at Israel and Zionism. Many of the movement’s leaders voiced disdain for the creation of the Jewish state upon its birth.

Antipathy towards Israel hardened as visitors to the region met with Palestinian Christians rather than Jews or Israelis, said Rudin, who led a Protestant-Jewish mission to Lebanon, Jordan and Israel in 1974.

The 2004 resolution seeking divestment from companies that do business in Israel isn’t the first time Protestants have proposed divesting from Israel. But it never gained steam, or came to a vote in any denomination, until 2004, he said.

Talk of divestment surfaced among Protestant leadership in the 1980s, comparing Israel’s actions to that of the apartheid government in South Africa.

Several bodies of the United Methodist Church, for example, have passed resolutions to limit or monitor U.S. and other governments’ aid to Israel based on the Jewish state’s presence in the West Bank or its settlement activity.

But the recent wave of divestment activity among the mainline churches marks a new era.

That it returned was due to the Palestinian uprising, the growing U.S.-Israel alliance and the fact that divestment helped bring down the South African government, Rudin believes.

Animosity has remained among some Protestant leaders, some of whom argue that Israel didn’t go far enough in reaching agreements with its Arab neighbors.

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