Two Years After Presbyterian Vote, Church Steps Back from Divestment

The movement to divest from Israel is restless, constantly seeking and finding fertile ground — but so far, at least, ultimately losing in every arena. So it was in academia. In the early years of the Palestinian intifada, when divestment backers circulated petitions for universities to drop their holdings in companies that do business in Israel, counterpetitions drew masses of signatures, dwarfing the original effort.

The latest attempt by the Presbyterian Church USA has come to the same end with the passage Wednesday of a resolution that replaces the 2004 call for divestment with a policy of peaceful investment in Israel, the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The resolution passed the church’s General Assembly by a vote of 483-28, with one abstention.

Still, this arguably was American Jewry’s most difficult battle yet on the divestment front.

The Jewish community was facing the prestige of an influential American church, whose allegiance to Palestinian Christians stems from 150 years of missionary work in the region. That alliance enabled the Presbyterian Church USA to pass a resolution two summers ago, at its last General Assembly, calling for “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.”

The Presbyterian move inspired several other Protestant churches to examine the divestment option, though none went as far as the Presbyterians.

But just as American Jewish groups rolled out a major offensive to educate Jewish students and advocate for Israel as the campus divestment drive gained steam, they crafted a unified response to church divestment efforts.

It was “an almost unprecedented mobilization,” along the lines of the undertaking to free Soviet Jewry decades ago, said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The JCPA joined the major U.S. Jewish defense groups and religious streams to work in a broad coalition. Some five dozen conference calls later, and after focus groups and dialogue between Jews and Presbyterians in synagogues, churches and community centers across the country, the Presbyterians shifted course.

At its General Assembly this week in Birmingham, the church’s peacemaking and international issues committee held exhaustive hearings before crafting and passing, with overwhelming support, a resolution in response to the controversial 2004 move.

The new resolution replaces the divestment call with a policy of “corporate engagement” that restricts the church to peaceful investments in the region. It also backtracks from the previous call to dismantle Israel’s West Bank security barrier, saying instead that it should follow the route of Israel’s pre-1967 boundary.

Jewish groups rejoiced at the passage of the reformed resolution. Yet some said it would be wrong to view the result solely as a Jewish victory.

Just as much, it restored “the soul of the Presbyterian church,” said anti-divestment activist William Harter, a pastor from Pennsylvania who is secretary-treasurer of the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel.

“Everyone on the other side is convinced we’re a well-financed, well-oiled Jewish front,” said Jim Roberts, chairman of the board of End Divestment Now, which sent letters pressing its cause to all 534 voting commissioners at the General Assembly. But “the reason this worked so well is that this is a Presbyterian-generated, Presbyterian- driven, Presbyterian-managed and Presbyterian-funded effort.”

Indeed, the issue has rocked the Presbyterian Church. Many church members felt not only misled about the 2004 resolution — which they thought had been vetted with the Jewish community — but misrepresented by a leadership they felt didn’t call enough attention to the issue before that vote, when it was tacked on to another resolution.

That jeopardized the Presbyterian ethic of fairness and deliberation. Making matters worse, other actions by church leadership — such as meetings with the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah — further alienated rank-and-file members.

For many Presbyterians, the 2004 resolution compromised the impartiality required by the church’s aspiration to be a peacemaker. Others say the punitive nature of divestment is simply bad policy.

Jewish activists worked closely with Presbyterians opposing divestment and, at the same time, charted their own course. Some, like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and various synagogues, urged members to sign petitions to the church. Mindy Marchal, a press officer with the church, said the institution received “numerous” form letters protesting divestment.

The Committee for Responsible Peace in the Middle East, a coalition comprised of the American Jewish Congress, Stand With Us and The David Project, promoted more aggressive grass-roots activism, providing anti-divestment literature at church gatherings, for example.

But for a wide swath of Jewish groups, their primary role was facilitative. According to JCPA’s Felson, “This was a conversation the church had to have with itself, and by having people talk on the local level, we played a role with helping that conversation along.”

That conversation came through in the array of speakers and legislative proposals addressing divestment before the peacemaking committee. Nearly all the proposals aimed to redress the damage done two years ago, either by rescinding divestment or by focusing on positive investment.

The final resolution does not rescind the previous call for divestment, but those close to the process say that the omission of the word “divestment” from the resolution is tantamount to its removal from consideration.

Then again, it’s not really clear what “corporate engagement” means. After the 2004 resolution, the church’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee called for an assessment of investments in any company that profits from violence toward Palestinians or Israelis.

The committee has taken no action beyond preliminary inquiries into five companies: Citigroup, for allegedly transferring funds to Palestinian terrorists; and Motorola, United Technologies, ITT Industries and Caterpillar, all of which work closely with the Israeli military.

But what, specifically, is being asked of the companies in question?

A church official said the corporate engagement process would entail asking companies to stop practices that the Presbyterian Church considers problematic. For example, the church would ask Motorola to stop selling night goggles to the Israel Defense Forces and would ask Caterpillar to cease selling the IDF bulldozers.

However, the will of the peacemaking committee — to promote fairness and balance — seems likely to prevail.

It was not unlike an act of the U.S. Congress to produce the compromise resolution. The church operates by Roberts Rules of Order, and the committee worked patiently and politely. After two days of testimony, members debated with civility, yielding time to one another and their “Madame moderator,” prayed for guidance in resolving the conflict justly, voted on resolutions and recessed to draft new ones, and debated nuances until reaching a vote late last Saturday night.

They reconsidered the text Sunday, but no amendment could shake the group’s conviction that its resolution already was correct.

During deliberations, one committee member asked whether the new language only euphemistically changed the old resolution, to which the lead drafter firmly replied no.

Those backing divestment must have realized the distinction. Between the time the committee drafted its resolution and the General Assembly vote, former moderators were said to be working to halt efforts by divestment activists to offer amendments or alternatives on the assembly floor.

To be sure, the Palestinians have a wellspring of support within the Presbyterian Church. Many had a platform during open hearings — where, without a mechanism for interruption, they were free to preach falsehoods.

One speaker incorrectly suggested that the University of Wisconsin and University of Michigan had endorsed divestment. Others simply blasted Israel while making no mention of Palestinian terrorism.

Several critics of Israel came from left-wing Jewish groups, as well as Norman Finkelstein, a DePaul University professor who argues that Israel and Jewish organizations have exploited the memory of the Holocaust for financial and political gain.

Anthony Damelio, a member of the peacemaking committee from the Presbytery of Western Reserve in Cleveland, urged the church not to worry too much about Jewish concerns.

“Just because some organizations of Jews” are offended should not dictate the church’s course, he said.

“We’re supposed to look at what God wants,” he said. “Social justice is not supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be clear cut.”

Jewish groups were thrilled with the outcome, saying the church had strengthened its relationship with the Jewish community in the process.

Jonathan Schwartz, assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Chicago chapter, said the overwhelming support for the resolution “indicates that there is no longer a will to isolate and demonize the State of Israel.”

In the last two years, American Jewish officials had complained that national Presbyterian officials had kept them out of the divestment debate.

But Schwartz said he had been “deeply affected” to see how “the folks on the peacemaking committee intuitively and deeply understood that their relationship with the Jewish community is a living part of their faith.”

The Jewish community, he noted, was indeed given “a voice in this conference.”

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