The Presbyterian Church USA will be voting on resolutions calling for divestment from companies doing business in Israel, as well as calling for international acknowledgement of Israeli “apartheid” practices toward Palestinians, when it meets in Pittsburgh at the end of this month for its 220th General Assembly.
If the PCUSA passes these resolutions, it will be the only mainstream religious group in the United States to formally adopt divestment policies toward Israel. Although the Presbyterians voted for divestment in 2004, they reversed their position at their next general assembly in 2006.
The divestment resolutions are directed against three companies purportedly doing business in Israel: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. Proponents of divestment say that Caterpillar supplies the bulldozers and earth-moving equipment used by the Israel Defense Forces to clear Palestinian homes and orchards; that Hewlett-Packard provides biometric monitoring at checkpoints and information technology to the Israeli navy; and that Motorola supplies surveillance equipment to “illegal settlements” in the West Bank, and communications equipment to “occupation forces.”
The Presbyterians have had divestment on their agenda for years, said Jeffery Cohan, director of community relations of Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, but the resolutions have not had the necessary backing to be fully adopted.
This year may be different.
The PCUSA claims it has “done its best to reason with these companies,” but they are still unwilling to cease selling goods to Israel, so proponents of divestment may now feel they have no better alternative than to divest, Cohan said.
That argument, however, may be disingenuous, said Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who noted that Caterpillar does not even sell its equipment directly to Israel. Rather, the bulldozers are provided to Israel through the U.S. government-run Foreign Military Sales program, according to Caterpillar spokesman Jim Dugan in an article published by the Associated Press.
“We’re hoping that people of goodwill will ask curious questions,” said Felson. “Why is this resolution being made when, for instance, Caterpillar doesn’t even sell to Israel? Does the cost of divesting from a company given no reliable options — the cost of shattering a relationship — is it worth it when this isn’t going to do anything to bring reconciliation and peace, but rather, will drive further apart people who need to work together?”
The JCPA, along with the Israel Action Network, has been circulating a “Letter of Hope” online, urging the PCUSA to reject the divestment resolutions. As of Monday, June 18, that letter had more than 17,000 signatures. A similar letter signed by 1,300 rabbis, covering a wide political and religious spectrum, was sent to the PCUSA earlier this summer.
When those rabbis sent out a comparable letter last month to the delegates to the United Methodist Church before their General Conference, a similar divestment resolution failed by a 2-1 margin.
It is unclear, though, whether the majority of the delegates to the Presbyterian General Assembly will listen to the voices of their Jewish neighbors. Various advisory boards to the church are recommending a vote for divestment, and efforts by the JCPA and other groups to explain the dangers of divestment have drawn criticism by some Presbyterian leaders.
For example, the PCUSA’s social witness policy committee recently endorsed the divestment resolutions, and attacked “Israel lobby groups such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.” Last Friday, the PCUSA’s National Middle East Presbyterian Caucus also endorsed the divestment resolutions, and told Presbyterians that “to recognize that Israel’s laws, policies, and practices constitute apartheid against the Palestinian people is a prerequisite to peace and justice in Israel and Palestine. … The core cause (though not the only cause) of violence and continued hostility between Israel and Palestinians, and between Israel and many Middle Eastern countries, has undoubtedly been the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine.”
Cohan and others, both locally and nationally, have been convening with Presbyterian commissioners, hoping to engage in a dialogue in which the perils of divestment become clear to the church before a vote is taken on the resolutions.
“We definitely have allies in the church who understand that divestment is not the best course of action,” Cohan said.
One of those allies may be Rev. Sheldon Sorge, pastor to the Pittsburgh Presbytery, who confirmed that local Presbyterians have “significant reservations” concerning the divestment resolutions.
“We have not had public conversations about [the divestment resolutions], only anecdotal,” Sorge said. “There is a fair amount of pushback from significant numbers of folks. But it is a mixed bag.”
Sorge said that those pushing for divestment primarily hope it will put pressure on the Israeli government “not to continue its policies — or develop new ones — that keep the Palestinians from moving about freely.”
“The Presbytery has had a long relationship with the Christian communities in the Palestinian areas,” Sorge noted, “so the secondary hope is they would be encouraged in their time of struggle that the Presbytery is in solidarity with them.”
Those in the church who are opposed to the divestment resolutions “have a deep respect for our relationship with our Jewish community,” Sorge said. “It is difficult for us to maintain our commitment to being in partnership with the Jewish community if we take initiatives that are aimed at altering the course of the Israeli government. The debate is can we be friends with our Jewish partners, and still be opposed to certain policies of the Israeli government?”
Those who support divestment get “the lion’s share” of their information about Middle East politics from an organization called the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN), an offshoot of the Presbyterian Church, Sorge said. The IPMN, however, has been criticized by both the JCPA and the American Jewish Committee for delivering anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and at times anti-Semitic content on its website and Facebook page.
For example, the IPMN’s Facebook page (which has since been removed) included a cartoon of President Barack Obama wearing heavy, gold Jewish star earrings, suggesting Jewish control of American leaders. The IPMN also has posted articles that accuse Jews of controlling Hollywood, the media, and American politics, and blame Israel for the American housing and economic crisis.
“The IPMN’s Facebook page ran some hateful imagery,” said Geri Palast, managing director of the Israel Action Network. “It’s clear that this group has engaged in both hateful imagery and hateful speech. It tends to view the situation as very one-sided. It does not present two peoples, each with their own issues and their own narrative.”
Still, despite the fact that Presbyterian proponents of divestment are being informed by the IPMN, Sorge does not believe that the divestment resolutions are motivated by anti-Semitism.
“I don’t think there is any conscious anti-Semitism at work,” he said. “The proponents [of divestment] assure me they bear no animus toward the Jewish people at all. I don’t catch that, certainly not in any conscious way. It springs instead from solidarity with the people who have been our church partners for generations; we are trying to stand with them. I don’t know anyone in the local Jewish community that denies the Palestinian plight is horrible. The reasons for that are another question.
“We have a partnership with the Jewish community that we treasure,” Sorge added. “We also have a partnership with the Palestinian Christian church. We’re caught in the middle of that tension.”
If the PCUSA does vote in favor of divestment, “it will have virtually no impact in Israel,” Cohan said. “It isn’t going to affect the geo-political situation in the Middle East, or the bottom line of the companies [doing business there]. But it will give credibility to the BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) movement, which has never had a significant victory in the United States. This would be the first significant victory, and the danger is that it would snowball. There’s a lot at stake in Pittsburgh.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)