Presbyterian Church votes in favor of divestment

Jewish leaders condemn vote pulling funds from 3 firms — Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard — deemed profiting from Israeli occupation

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Several attendants of the Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit form a prayer circle and sing for Israeli-Arab peace. Two are seen wearing shirts which read: 'Another Jew supporting divestment.' (screen capture: YouTube)
Several attendants of the Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit form a prayer circle and sing for Israeli-Arab peace. Two are seen wearing shirts which read: 'Another Jew supporting divestment.' (screen capture: YouTube)

WASHINGTON — In a move that a number of Jewish leaders warned would damage Jewish-Presbyterian relations for years to come, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA voted Friday in favor of divesting from three US companies which they complained profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

The motion to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard passed by a narrow margin of 310-303, despite intensive campaigning by a number of Jewish organizations, including the Reform Movement, the American Jewish Committee, and JStreet. The General Assembly also passed, by a much wider margin of 482-88, a resolution to re-examine the Church’s stated support for a two-state solution.

The run-up to the vote was closely watched by pro- and anti- Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists, although members of the church’s Middle East Issues Committee stressed that the resolution should not be seen as a larger divestment from Israel. In the end, the General assembly added an amendment which explicitly said that the Church was not divesting from Israel, but only these three companies.

The General Assembly rejected an amendment that would have reinvested the funds in Israeli companies that sought “peaceful solutions.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, taking questions from rabbis at a session for clergy at the Reform biennial in San Diego, Dec. 13, 2013. (photo credit: URJ via JTA)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, taking questions from rabbis at a session for clergy at the Reform biennial in San Diego, Dec. 13, 2013. (photo credit: URJ via JTA)

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, described the decision as showing a “preference for a policy of isolation rather than one of engagement.” While emphasizing that American Jews “have great friends within the Presbyterian Church,” he also acknowledged that “at a national level,” the vote was “not a surprise.”

Jacobs referenced the Church’s sponsorship and dissemination of “Zionism Unsettled,” a booklet condemned by a number of Jewish groups and complimented by former Klansman David Duke for its use of the term “Jewish supremacism” to describe Zionist thought.

“We will continue to partner with our allies within the church who are committed to a two-state solution, reject the effort of the BDS campaign to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and work toward a just and fair solution to enable the Palestinians to achieve the state that they deserve. We will continue to advocate forcefully for two states for two peoples,” Jacobs promised.

Jacobs delivered a forceful address against the resolution at the Detroit conference on Thursday, one day before the vote was held. In it, Jacobs invited Presbyterian leaders to come with him to Israel next week, and address their concerns the Palestinians’ condition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A vote was also held on Jacobs’ offer, and the proposal to send Church leaders to Israel was defeated.

“However, based on today’s vote, especially when taken together with “Zionism Unsettled,” we can reach no conclusion other than that PC(USA) itself does not share those baseline commitments and that they are not a partner for joint work on Israel-Palestine peace issues. Whatever the intent of some who supported this resolution, this vote will be widely understood as endorsement of and support for the BDS Movement,” he said.

Jacobs said that he believes that the majority of Presbyterian clergy and lay leaders to not agree with the General Assembly’s decision, and urged them to “let themselves now be heard.”

“We need to be working together on this vital issue and there cannot be a true partnership when one side endorses positions that delegitimize the other’s rights and core values,” Jacobs concluded.

The Israel Action Network (IAN) and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs also quickly responded to the decision, saying in a statement that it expressed “outrage and disappointment.”

IAN Managing Director Geri Palast said that it was “troubling and tragic to see the Presbyterian Church (USA) choose to reject partnership in favor of partisanship, ignoring the entreaties of every major organizational voice in the American Jewish community, including over 1,700 religious leaders from the four movements and all fifty states.”

JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow warned that the “decision will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on relations between mainstream Jewish groups and the national Presbyterian Church (USA). We hold the leadership of the PCUSA accountable for squandering countless opportunities, not only to act responsibly to advance prospects for Middle East peace, but also to isolate and repudiate the radical, prejudiced voices in their denomination.”

Rabbi Noam Marans, the AJC director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations described the vote in a statement as “a very sad day for Presbyterian-Jewish relations when church leaders from across the US align with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

“This is an affront to all who are committed to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The PCUSA decision is celebrated by those who believe they are one step closer to a Jew-free Middle East,” said Marans.

Marans described the vote as the outcome of a decade-long campaign within the Church.

“BDS advocates within the church have been allowed to demonize Israel through one-sided reports and study guides, such as Zionism Unsettled, the latest and most outrageous church document on the subject,” he complained.

“In response, PCUSA leadership could have declared clearly to church members, ‘We will not support misinformation, we will not condone propagandist indoctrination. Instead, they have empowered those within the denomination who are driven by hatred of Israel to undermine support for the peaceful resolution of the conflict via a directly negotiated two-state solution, with the Jewish state of Israel living in peace and security alongside the future Palestinian state,” he added.

Like Jacobs, Marans and AJC Detroit director Kari Alterman attended the PCUSA General Assembly and spoke before GA committees.

While many groups quickly condemned the vote, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which received an award from the Church for its work together with the Israel/Palestine Mission Network and advocated heavily in favor of the resolution issued a statement saying that it “congratulates and celebrates the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s vote to divest $21 million from Hewlett-Packard, Motorola Solutions, and Caterpillar – three companies whose profits from the ongoing Israeli occupation have been extensively documented.”

The vote, the organization wrote in the statement, “is a strong signal of its commitment to universal human rights.” It went on to describe the decision as a “turning point” and a “major development in the longstanding work to bring the US into alignment with the rest of the world.”

“This action is the culmination of a decade of focused, courageous work by members of the Church. And it builds on the brave decisions being made every day around the US,” wrote the organization, which has openly supported BDS activism. “Already this year, five student governments adopted divestment resolutions, and both the Gates Foundation and the United Methodist Church (UMC) divested from G4S, the British-Danish firm that provides security services for Israeli prisons that detain Palestinians.

JVP also wrote that the vote “shows how attempts to cynically use accusations of anti-semitism to forestall principled actions are losing power.”

The organization called other Jewish groups that oppose occupation to “drop their spurious criticisms of divestment and instead join us in taking concrete action to change policy,” arguing that “divestment is inclusive, nonviolent, and in line with Jewish values.”

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