Methodists reject divestment

Roger Kallenberg, at microphone, of Jewish Voice for Peace speaks in support of a petition recommending divestment from Caterpillar Inc., while Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, left, waits to speak against divestment at a United Methodist Church news briefing in Fo (Marta W. Aldrich)

Roger Kallenberg, at microphone, of Jewish Voice for Peace speaks in support of a petition recommending divestment from Caterpillar Inc., while Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, left, waits to speak against divestment at a United Methodist Church news briefing in Fo (Marta W. Aldrich)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Jewish groups have been worried for months that the United Methodist Church would revive a push for anti-Israel divestment measures at its convention.

Instead the meeting last week drew no fewer than five laudatory news releases from Jewish organizations.

B’nai B’rith International, the Reform Religious Action Center, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League all celebrated the rejection of five separate petitions calling on the church to divest from companies that support or profit from the Israeli occupation.

The groups described the actions, taken at the church’s quadrennial convention in Fort Worth, Texas, as contributing to interfaith understanding and the quest for peace in the Middle East.

Some attributed the positive outcome to successful grass-roots lobbying by local Jewish leaders.

Even one Jewish organization that supports divestment was choosing to see the bright side of the convention’s proceedings.

Jewish Voice for Peace, a California-based group that considers divestment a legitimate and peaceful tool to end the occupation, focused instead on a separate decision requiring the church to consider the ethical dimension of its investment decisions.

In a news release, the group called the decision a “stunning rebuke to anti-divestment groups.”

“This is an important step forward for a major U.S. church that has a longstanding history of opposition to the Israeli occupation, and is now moving towards one of the only nonviolent actions that can lead to real peace in the region,” said Sydney Levy, director of campaigns for Jewish Voice for Peace. “Each day Israel’s occupation and settlement expansion continues unabated, the divestment and sanctions movement will grow.”

Concern that the United Methodist Church would adopt a divestment resolution has been building for months, fueled by a study guide the church published last year on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Jewish groups compared to hate literature.

Jewish organizational leaders worried that the church, as the largest mainline Protestant organization in the United States, could reignite a push toward divestment by other Protestant groups.

Last month, the United Methodist Church withdrew from consideration a resolution targeting Caterpillar Inc. after the company agreed to enter a dialogue with the church. Caterpillar produces equipment that Israel uses in the Palestinian territories.

No less than 14 petitions concerning Israel and the Middle East conflict were considered at the Methodist convention among some 1,600 pieces of legislation.

While rejecting divestment petitions that specifically named Israel, the church did adopt two general resolutions on ethical investing. It also moved to create a task force to establish standards for responsible investing consistent with the church’s ethical principles.

Jewish groups were hailing as well a resolution urging the observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day and calling the church “to contrition and repentance of its complicity in ‛the long history of persecution of the Jewish people.’” Another resolution that earned plaudits opposed proselytizing to Jews.

David Michaels, B’nai B’rith’s director of intercommunal affairs, called the grass-roots lobbying effort a “key part” of the positive outcome.

“Credit really goes to the Jewish representatives at the local level,” he said.

The Methodist conference elicited an intense lobbying effort on both sides of the divestment issue.

Several major Jewish organizations had representatives on the ground in Texas to fight the divestment push. Meanwhile, Jewish Voice for Peace also undertook a broad effort, with seven members dispatched to the conference and the launch of a pro-divestment Web site.

“What we came away with is, this isn’t going away,” said Rachel Pfeffer, Jewish Voice for Peace’s interim executive director. “The Methodists are dealing with this in their way. They haven’t said no to divestment. It’s going to keep going.”

But the mainstream organizations countered that Jewish Voice for Peace was trying to save face after coming up empty in its massive pro-divestment effort.

“If it was a stunning rebuke to those who oppose divestment from Israel, then it was also a stunning rebuke to those who oppose divestment from Cleveland or anywhere else,” said Ethan Felson, the associate executive director of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. “It just wasn’t situation specific.”

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