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Aligning morals with investments: Presbyterian Church votes on divestment from three companies

By Lil Jackson - June 21, 2014
Section: [Main News] [BDS]
Tags: [BDS]

The Presbyterian Church USA [PCUSA] voted on Friday to divest $21 million for three companies complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. Of nine overtures proposed at the 221st General Assembly meeting held in Detroit Michigan this past week, six supported divestment from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard. 654 commissioners with the advice of 219 delegates cast the vote: 310 for, 303 against. 

The proposal follows a ten year effort by the PCUSA’ Middle East Committee to divest the Church pension funds from the companies. “This is a culmination of ten years of research, corporate engagement and study by the Presbyterian church,” Rabbi Alissa Wise, of Jewish Voice for Peace, said of the 221st General Assembly.  The vote to divest failed in 2012 by 2 votes, 331 in favor and 333 against.

Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, told Palestine Monitor: "With this sweet victory, Presbyterian supporters of Palestinian rights have not only solidly introduced divestment from Israel's occupation to the US mainstream, they have given the Palestinian people real hope in the face of the relentless cruelty of Israel's regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid.”

With 1.76 million members and 10,262 congregations, the Presbyterian Church has become the largest religious group to divest millions of dollars from companies complicit in Israel’s occupation. As of 31 December 2013, the PCUSA Board of Pensions’ total investment assets were $9.2 billion.

This divestment has not come without contention. Both members within PCUSA and those from the Jewish American community have expressed concerns. A letter to PCUSA commissioners from Jewish American religious leaders accuses those pushing for divestment of “oversimplifying a complex conflict and placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility.” John Wimberly, a retired Presbyterian Pastor, argued that this form of divestment would form part of an “ugly history of Christian economic sanctions against Jews.”

Strikingly, both positions seem to confuse the very reason why PCUSA has been considering divestment. The Jewish community and voices within the Presbyterian Church have brought out the familiar arguments in relation to the BDS movement. Opposition is preoccupied with furthering the narrative that anyone who does not stand 100% with Israel is against them. In an effort to make honest and church abiding investments, commissioners in favor of divestment have felt the wrath of pro-Israel advocates, who confuse their moral arguments with anti-Semitism.

The Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), PCUSA’s church body in charge of socially responsible investment, recommended to the General Assembly to “add Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions to the General Assembly divestment list until such time as the companies change their corporate practices, and confine their operations in Israel, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank solely to peaceful pursuits.”

MRTI’s resolution does not call for divestment from Israel, Israeli companies or from Jewish owned companies. The companies recommended have been chosen due to their complicity in the occupation. Caterpillar, not unfamiliar as a BDS target, has been chosen due to its complicity in housing demolitions in Gaza and the West Bank. Surveillance equipment supply in and around illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank have made Motorola Solutions another recommended addition to PCUSA’s divestment list.

Hewlett Packard provides the tracking system that controls all movement of Palestinians at the checkpoints through out the West Bank. It also provides the biometric ID system that is used to regulate residency rights for non-Jews in East Jerusalem.

The real issue for those opposed to the BDS movement is what comes next. There are serious fears from major Israel advocacy organizations and religious denominations that Protestant groups, who have only contemplated divestment in the past, may be encouraged to act by the result of the PCUSA vote.

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