Preparing for Presbyterian Israel divestment showdown in Birmingham

The attention of the Jewish world will be focused on Birmingham this month as the Presbyterian Church (USA) holds its General Assembly, which will begin on June 15.

The church’s initiatives on divesting investments from companies doing business with Israel will be a major topic of discussion, and representatives from many national Jewish organizations will be on hand to monitor the discussions.

The controversy erupted during the 2004 General Assembly, held in Richmond, Va. According to the church the Presbyterian position has always been to affirm Israel’s right to exist in “secure, internationally recognized borders,” affirm the Palestinians’ right “to self-determination” including an independent state, and to condemn anti-Semitism, terrorism “and other acts of violence against innocent people by either party to the conflict.”

In Richmond, the roughly 500 commissioners called for an end to violence and “Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands” and a process of “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.”

“It was the culmination of decades — not years, but decades — of hostility toward Israel and Zionism, not by the rank-and-file members of these churches, but by some of the leadership,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee, where he staffed the interfaith department for 38 years.

What happens there will have a lasting impact on the already strained relationship between Jews and the entire Protestant community. The estimated 3 million Presbyterians in the United States influence the other white mainline Protestant churches in this country, whose members number more than 20 million.

Presbyterians are considered the “conscience” and reason of the Protestant community, serving as something of a “swing vote,” Rudin said.

Indeed, after the Presbyterians’ 2004 resolution on divestment, several other Protestant communities took up the issue. The Methodists decided to study their options; the United Church of Christ, also known as the Congregationalists, endorsed divestment but did not create a process to enact it; the Episcopalians considered but rejected divestment; and the Lutherans rejected a divestment resolution, and instead passed a resolution to invest in cooperative ventures between Israelis and Palestinians.

A Presbyterian committee assessed the church’s stock portfolio and singled out five companies last August:

• Caterpillar, because the Israeli military uses its equipment to demolish Palestinian homes and construct roads for Israeli settlers in “the occupied territories”;

• Citigroup, due to charges that it has transferred funds to Palestinian terrorist groups;
• ITT Industries, for supplying communication devices to the Israeli military used in “the occupied territories”;

• Motorola, because it also supplies the Israeli military with communication devices, and takes “advantage of the Israeli government policy of delaying or prohibiting the importation of modern equipment into Palestine”; and

• United Technologies, for providing helicopters to the Israeli military that have been used in attacks against suspected Palestinian terrorists.

Rev. Terry Newland, executive of the Synod of Living Waters in Birmingham, told the Jewish community last November that Presbyterians have already divested themselves from companies dealing in tobacco, alcohol and supplying the military. “We have a policy that says we don’t want to make money off people’s suffering,” he said, adding that the policy against military suppliers does not make the denomination anti-American, so nobody thought a similar statement on the Middle East was anti-Israel. “That surprised us, and we were not sensitive to that.”

Divestment means pulling the movement’s funds from investments in offending companies. Despite the 2004 vote, divestment “did not happen” and likely will not take place in 2006, even if the 2004 resolutions are upheld. “There is no recommendation to divest from any particular company yet,” Newland said.

After identifying a company, Presbyterians then have a meeting with company executives to see about changing their behavior. If they are not satisfied, a shareholder’s resolution is introduced at the company’s annual meeting. Only after those avenues have been exhausted would divestment take place.

Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El said divestment’s damage isn’t economic. “It has opened up an opportunity for people” who question Israel’s existence “to say that there is no need for Israel as a Jewish state.”

He noted that the only context most Americans have with the term “divestment” is in connection with the apartheid regime of South Africa. Palestinian activists routinely try to forge a connection between the two, to paint Israel as an illegitimate, racist state.

Nearly one-fifth of the 137 proposals to be considered at the 2006 assembly address divestment. Some want to press forward with the divestment process, many others aim to rescind the original resolution and express serious concern about the damage the issue has done to Jewish-Presbyterian relations and the church’s reputation.

The first one was submitted by the Presbytery of Mississippi, and it is seen as the one most strongly opposed to the 2004 decision.

Steve Ramp, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, was asked about the resolutions in the fall of 2004. Surprised, he researched it, and also heard from Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn of B’nai Israel in Hattiesburg.

In January 2005, First Presbyterian Church of Bay St. Louis submitted an overture to the Mississippi Presbytery calling for repeal of the resolutions. Their organist, who was Jewish, had resigned in protest.

The Mississippi Overture, passed unanimously in May 2005, reaffirms “concern for ‘a just resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” but “some of the means for achieving peace advocated by the 216th General Assembly (2004) were not appropriate and, in light of changing circumstances, should not be implemented. They should be rescinded or, in some cases, significantly modified to advance more effectively and fairly the cause of peace.”
It criticizes the “arrogant and condescending” tone of the resolutions and how the “viewpoint expressed suggests bias in favor of the Palestinian cause and prejudice against Israel.”

The resolution states that “fair criticism” of the security fence because of its placement “into the Palestinian territory” is appropriate, but the church should not “tell a sovereign nation whether or how it can protect its borders or handle matters of national defense.”

It also calls the blanket condemnation of Christian Zionism as “misleading and incendiary.”

Another resolution is being submitted by the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley, which is in central Alabama. It calls for rescinding the authority to divest, and encourages investment in efforts “that are likely to promote peace and reconciliation.”

Miller has been working with the clergy from South Highland Presbyterian Church and Independent Presbyterian Church in formulating a response.

The Overtures go before committees, which will meet over the weekend. The Overtures will be condensed into one resolution, or alternatives will be presented to the assembly during one of the final days of the conference, which ends June 22.

Asked about the issue by JTA, Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief ecclesiastical officer of the Presbyterian Church, said it has been “very painful that in our effort to secure peace and justice for all,” the church has hurt members of the Jewish community, for which the church has “deep respect.” The Presbyterian Church is committed to both good interfaith relations with Jews and Muslims while pursuing “peace and justice in the Middle East.”

Some devoted to Jewish-Christian relations have made overturning divestment a priority. They include the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, a network that long has worked with Jewish and Christian supporters to promote Israel’s cause.

The group is hosting a May 18 conference on divestment at the Central Presbyterian Church in New York City and coordinating a Presbyterian mission to Israel later this month.

There’s “a real groundswell of opposition that’s occurred within the church, and it’s very widespread,” said Jim Roberts, a Presbyterian from San Diego, who heads a committee of volunteers and a Web site called “End Divestment Now.”

Roberts’ group argues that divestment is rooted in bias and flawed theology, and considers the divestment push a breach of the church’s principles of fairness and bottom-up governance.
Insiders say several sources gave rise to the 2004 divestment resolution and the pro-Palestinian feelings among many Presbyterians.

For one, Palestinian Christians have deeply influenced the church by framing the Israeli-Palestinian issue in terms of “liberation theology,” portraying the Palestinians as powerless victims who must be freed from their ostensible oppressors, the Israelis.

The most influential group espousing this platform is the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, which sponsors conferences around the world and speakers at Christian gatherings, and advocates divestment from Israel.

Jewish groups, and many Christians, call Sabeel a corrupting influence.

Christians for Fair Witness in the Middle East holds news conferences about Sabeel nearly every time the group holds a meeting in America, said the Rev. Roy W. Howard, an executive committee member who is pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Rockville, Md.

According to Howard, Sabeel is ambiguous about Israel’s very right to exist: Its devotees speak about a “Greater Palestine” in which there is no Jewish state, he said.

The Rev. Richard Toll, chairman of Friends of Sabeel North America, calls these charges a distortion.

“There has never been a call for the destruction of Israel or anything like that at all,” he said. Leaders of mainstream Jewish groups are often invited, but don’t respond, he said.

San Francisco, a presbytery that has presented an overture affirming divestment, was influenced less by Sabeel than by Presbyterians who visited Palestinian areas, said the Rev. Will McGarvey, pastor of the Community Presbyterian Church, who will present San Francisco’s proposal at the assembly.

Jewish officials in San Francisco felt insulted that the local presbytery never informed them of its overture.

Some say Presbyterian leaders have sidelined Jewish voices on divestment.

It’s “downright embarrassing that the Presbyterians have not made certain that they have multiple points of views and interpretations of what’s going on,” said Christopher Leighton, director of the Baltimore-based Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.

Leighton cited a conference on divestment last year in Louisville, Ky., site of the church’s national headquarters. The Baltimore delegation walked out because of the lopsided pro-Palestinian representation.

“It was an appalling example of having a foregone conclusion that you want to trumpet and so you know where you want people to end up before they even start out,” he said. “It seems to me that that’s symptomatic of how our leadership has handled this.”

The day before this year’s General Assembly, for example, the church has scheduled a Middle East forum with three representatives — a Palestinian Christian, an American Muslim and an American Jew, Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Why, anti-divestment forces wonder, is there no Israeli represented?

Address to Jewish community
The day before the GA begins, Rev. John Wimberly, co-chair of Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish and Christian Relations, will speak at the Birmingham Jewish Community Relations Committee annual meeting, June 14 at noon in the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School library. The meeting is open to the community.

A similar JCRC meeting about the topic drew many times the usual attendance last fall.
The PCJCR is an informal group of members, ministers and congregations belonging to Presbyterian Church (USA), though it is not an official agency of the church. Its members are “committed to a positive, constructive and respectful relationship with Jews.”

Given the wave of overtures to reject divestment, “one would hope they would see that as the will of the people,” Wimberly, pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, said. He has been a pastor in the Washington area for 24 years, and in 1994 received the Conscience of the Community Award from the American Jewish Congress.

However, “this issue has become the ‘in’ issue,” Wimberly said. “It’s the issue of the left today in the Presbyterian Church and it gains a kind of life of its own.”

His organization will have a booth offering anti-divestment literature. Members of the local Presbyterian and Jewish communities will be paired at the booth on every 2-hour shift, and volunteers are currently being recruited.

(Additional material by Rachel Pomerance of JTA).