(JTA) — The pension fund for the United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States, has removed five Israeli banks from its investment portfolio.
The church’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits said this week on its website that along with its Wespath Investment Management division, the fund was attempting to divest from “high-risk” countries and was “committed to protecting human rights.”
“Israel-Palestine” is one of the areas identified as “‘high-risk’ countries and areas that demonstrate a prolonged and systematic pattern of human rights abuses.” Other countries listed include North Korea, Syria, Sudan and Turkey-Northern Cyprus.
Some 39 companies appear on the fund’s list of excluded entities.
The five Israeli banks excluded are Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, First International Bank of Israel, Israel Discount Bank and Mizrahi Tefahot Bank. The fund, which is worth more than $20 billion, reportedly sold off a few million dollars in the banks’ stocks. Elbit Systems, an Israeli international defense electronics company, also appears on the list, as does the Israeli real estate and construction company Shikun & Binui.
However, the fund remains invested in 18 other Israeli companies.
The United Methodist Kairos Response, a coalition of pro-Palestinian church members calling for divestment from companies that do business in the West Bank, praised the divestment decision, calling it “the first time a major church pension fund has acted to preclude investment in Israeli banks that sustain Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land.”
Its chair, the Rev. Michael Yoshii, said it was “only a first step towards ending our financial complicity in the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.”
The coalition noted the fund still holds stock in 10 Israeli firms that do business in the West Bank, including the Bezeq telecommunications company, the Cellcom communications company, the Delek group and Rami Levy Chain Stores.
Among four proposals the coalition said it has submitted to the church’s General Conference in May, three would require divesting from companies that operate in the West Bank. The fourth would establish a screen to preclude investments in companies doing business in illegal settlements anywhere in the world.
The Methodist Church has about 13 million members worldwide.