Presbyterian Church in US considers Israel divestment

Jewish groups claim Israel’s very legitimacy — not just millions of dollars invested in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola — is at stake in vote

A Caterpillar bulldozer clears the area where a smuggling border tunnel between the Gaza Strip and Egypt was targeted by an Israeli air strike at dawn in Rafah, southern Gaza, on July 14, 2011. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Caterpillar bulldozer clears the area where a smuggling border tunnel between the Gaza Strip and Egypt was targeted by an Israeli air strike at dawn in Rafah, southern Gaza, on July 14, 2011. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The largest Presbyterian group in the US is considering divesting from three major global companies over the Israeli military’s use of their products in the Palestinian territories.

The proposal before the Presbyterian Church (USA) has outraged many Jewish groups, who sent representatives to the church’s national assembly in Pittsburgh this week to lobby against the measure. Divestment supporters say the targeted companies — Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Motorola — are profiting from Palestinian suffering. The American Jewish Committee, a public policy group, has said the proposal demonizes Israel and threatens Christian-Jewish relations.

Debate and vote were scheduled for late Thursday.

Pro-Palestinian Presbyterians have been trying for years to persuade the denomination to divest. But the church has been dissuaded by US Jewish groups and other Christians who argue that withdrawing investments will not contribute to peace in the region.

At this year’s Presbyterian General Assembly, pro-divestment activists believe momentum is on their side.

Pension funds in Norway and Sweden have divested themselves of holdings in some firms involved in building settlements or helping to erect Israel’s contentious West Bank separation barrier. European activists have stepped up pressure on companies by exposing their West Bank ties and picketing stores that sell goods produced in Israeli settlements.

Last week, the US investment firm MSCI Inc. announced it had removed Caterpillar from three of its popular indexes that track socially responsible investments, leading mutual fund giant TIAA-CREF to divest $72 million in Caterpillar stock.

MSCI was initially reported to have cited concerns about the Israeli military’s use of company bulldozers in the Palestinian territories. On Thursday, however, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a press release to say that MSCI had clarified that the move was strictly a financial decision; the Presidents Conference added that it was satisfied with the explanation and considered the matter closed.

Caterpillar has come under scrutiny because of the Israeli military’s use of armored-plated Caterpillar bulldozers. Caterpillar says it does not equip tractors with armor or sell directly to the Israeli military. Instead, equipment is first sold to the US government and then resold to Israel and outfitted for military use.

Other major American Protestant denominations, including the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church, have rejected past divestment proposals.

The exact amount of money involved in the Presbyterian divestment is unclear. The funds are divided between the church Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation. The board investments are estimated to be around $16 million.

However negligible the economic impact, pro-Palestinian activists consider the withdrawal of funds an act of social witness.

The Rev. Walt Davis, of the Israel Palestine Mission Network, a pro-Palestinian Presbyterian group, argued the denomination would have divested years ago from the companies under church’s socially responsible investment guidelines “were it not for the Israel lobby.”

“They said first that it’s anti-Semitic, then that it’s anti-Israel, then that it delegitimizes Israel. It’s none of those,” Davis said. “It’s us being true to our values.”

But the liberal-leaning Americans for Peace Now, which calls for the evacuation of Jewish settlements in the territories and supports a Palestinian state, said the Presbyterian effort was “misguided and counterproductive.”

“Divestment campaigns such as this therefore raise very real and understandable worries about global anti-Semitism and the perception that the campaigns are not truly (or only) about Israeli policies but rather reflect a deep-seated hatred for and rejection of Israel,” the group said in a statement ahead of the vote.

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