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Presbyterian Compromise Appears to Please Israel Divestment Opponents

June 19, 2006
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Members of a Presbyterian Church committee hope that altering a policy on Israel divestment will quell two years of controversy. It appears they may have succeeded.

The new call for “corporate engagement” extends to companies involved in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem and posits the will for a balanced approach to peacemaking efforts between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

After the Presbyterian Church USA passed a resolution initiating a “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” at its last General Assembly in June 2004, many Jews and Presbyterians felt blindsided by an action they considered both unfair and inappropriate.

At its General Assembly this week in Birmingham, lay and clergy all seem to have an opinion on the efficacy and justice of the matter.

The cacophony of voices, including those of several Jewish officials, have had a platform here, beginning with a panel discussion June 15, followed by open hearings last Friday — where anti-divestment testimony was delivered by James Woolsey, a former CIA director, and Judea Pearl, the father of slain Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl — and speeches Saturday by backers of some 26 proposed resolutions before the church’s peacemaking and international issues committee.

At the same time, the 60-member committee crafted a new resolution Saturday night on Israel divestment that will come before the General Assembly for a vote on Wednesday.

The tenets of the resolution include:

calling on the church to restrict its investments that relate to Israel, Gaza, eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank to peaceful pursuits;

regretting the pain caused to the Jewish community and within the Presbyterian community for flaws in the resolution’s initial process;

urging peaceful cooperation among Israelis, Americans and Palestinians, and Jews, Muslims and Christians;

calling for dismantling Israel’s security barrier beyond its pre-1967 borders;

and aiming to submit these proposals to U.S., Israeli and Palestinian politicians and religious leaders.

While the new resolution does not rescind divestment, anti-divestment activists are pleased with the new language.

“Divestment has been stopped,” said the Rev. James Young, an anti-divestment proponent from Virginia Beach, Va. Previously, divestment was a mandate, he said. Now, the “probability that they will recommend any sort of divestment is extremely remote.”

But not everyone felt totally vindicated.

Adam Fischer, a member of the committee, was one of six who voted against the motion. While the motion is a “step in the right direction,” it still does not rescind the process that could lead to divestment, he said.

After the divestment resolution in 2004, the Presbyterian committee expanded its investigation to include companies that profit from violence against either Israelis or Palestinians. Initially, five companies were selected — Caterpillar, Citigroup, Motorola, ITT Industries and United Technologies.

Although companies with both Israeli and Palestinian clients are being targeted, Fischer says the company most talked about throughout this process is Caterpillar, which supplies bulldozers to Israel’s military.

And he fears that Israel’s detractors will misappropriate the Presbyterian action as an anti-Israel one. Fischer was among a group of Presbyterians who recently visited Israel on a mission sponsored by the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel.

Several of the mission’s participants, along with other Presbyterians in town for the conference, shared their support for Israel and the Jewish community by attending services and Shabbat dinner at Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El last Friday night.

Some 20 Presbyterians were invited to the dais, where several offered blessings to the congregation.

Later, they shared the slide show of their visit and expressed their convictions against divestment.

Divestment is a “battle for the soul of the Presbyterian church,” the Rev. William Harter, from Chambersburg, Pa., told JTA.

Harter explained to the congregation the deep historical ties — some 150 years of missionary work in the region — that bind much of the Presbyterian leadership to the Palestinian cause.

The Rev. William Evertsberg, of Greenwich, Conn. reflected a general sense of relief at the committee’s move.

“We’re going to be able to go back to our Jewish friends feeling pretty good about this, and I think we did justice to our Palestinian friends, too,” he said.

Throughout the conference, sentiments on both sides of the issue could be seen.

Some anti-divestment attendees wore buttons and T-shirts featuring a red strike through the word “divestment.”

A global marketplace in the basement of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, where the General Assembly is held, houses a booth of anti-divestment activists along with a booth for Friends of Sabeel — North America. The group supports the Jerusalem-based Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center — Sabeel, which advocates divestment.

Fliers posted around the conference center memorialize the life of Rachel Corrie, the pro-Palestinian activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer.

Corrie’s cousin testified for divestment, and claimed that an Israeli Caterpillar bulldozer ran over Corrie twice.

But most seem to be genuinely struggling for a way to make an impact for peace in the complex web of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And given the Presbyterians’ identification with Palestinian Christians, many want desperately to help their brethren, whom they believe are oppressed by Israel.

The 2004 resolution was a “great gift to the Palestinian people,” said peacemaking committee member Nabeel Saoud of West Hills, Calif., in response to a suggestion to eliminate the word “occupation” from Saturday night’s compromise resolution.

Saoud did not want to now pull the “rug from underneath” them, he said.

In the end, the word “compromise” was left in.

One thing at this conference is clear: The overwhelming sense among Presbyterians that a departure from the 2004 resolution is in order.

“Watching 60 members of the peacemaking committee discuss this issue was eye-opening because there was something between consensus and unanimity that a serious misstep occurred in 2004,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “The focus of their debate” was the placement of Israel’s separation barrier, rather than completely denouncing it, which occurred two years ago.

“Changing the divestment policy seemed a given in their deliberations” — a result, he said, of two years of conversations between Jews and Presbyterians and among Presbyterians themselves.

“This church shouldn’t be judged by the actions of two years ago.”

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