From June 15 to 22, Birmingham will host the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, which is held every other year. The Jewish world is very interested in the proceedings because of a 2004 resolution that called for the church enact a process of “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” that the church “believes are impeding peace in the Middle East by profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the construction of the security barrier around and sometimes through occupied Palestinian territory.”
The Jewish community responded with shock and anger at the resolution, and numerous Presbyteries also were surprised when they learned of the resolution.
Many Presbyteries submitted Overtures for this year’s GA, most of them urging the GA to rescind the divestment policy. A few state that if divestment does occur, the funds should then be invested in companies in the region that are making positive strides for peace.
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 San Francisco Presbytery urges a reaffirmation of the 2004 resolution. One Presbytery in Illinois urges rescinding of the policy as it relates to one targeted company whose headquarters is in its region.
Another resolution is being submitted in the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley, which is in central Alabama and is the host Presbytery for the conference. It calls for rescinding the authority to divest, and encourages investment in efforts “that are likely to promote peace and reconciliation.”
The Peacemaking and International Issues committee will take the Overtures and hammer out a document that will be presented to the GA for approval. While there are about 40 committee members listed, none come from Alabama or Mississippi Presbyteries.
On June 16, the committee will begin its deliberations. Of the 41 Overtures submitted for this committee, all but 13 are about the divestment issue. By comparison, there are two about Darfur.
The committee, which will meet in East M at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, will discuss non-Middle East resolutions at an 11 a.m. hearing, then start on the Middle East at 1:30 p.m. Special guests will speak at 3 p.m., then the topic will shift to other subjects at 3:45 p.m.
The committee will again take up Middle East Overtures at 9:20 a.m. on June 17, then start discussion and action on the issue at 1:30 p.m.
Where did the issue come from?
The church has a history of calling for non-violence in the Middle East, guaranteeing Israel’s right to exist, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. In 2004, “with the Israel/Palestine situation deteriorating and violence escalating,” Palestinian Christian leaders urged the leadership to consider divestment. The latest round of violence had begun in 2000 after Yasser Arafat rejected Israeli overtures for a comprehensive two-state solution.
Supporters of the resolution saw it as a sign the church was “putting its money where its mouth is, after 50 years of issuing seemingly ineffectual statements in support of peaceful and secure coexistence.”
Opponents said the resolution singled out Israel for perpetuating the conflict and ignored terrorism against Israeli civilians.
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.
What is divestment?
Divestment means any church investments in targeted companies would be sold, so the church would not profit from things with which it disagrees. The Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee established criteria for identifying such companies.
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.
While MRTI has met with five targeted companies, there is no recommendation on the table for divestment in 2006. If the policy is not rescinded, it is anticipated that there will be recommendations in 2008.
Why is it important?
According to Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee, the resolution “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.”
What happens at the GA 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.
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.
Who is targeted?
Five companies were singled out 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.
Why the outcry?
The resolution was seen as one-sided against Israel. Because it focuses on Israel’s response to terrorism, it is seen as trying to hinder efforts to protect Israeli civilians in the face of an enemy that still refuses to acknowledge the right of a Jewish state to exist.
The security fence, while controversial, is seen as a temporary measure to hinder suicide bombers, and has been widely credited with the significant reduction in such attacks. Attacks on the fence are seen as attacks on self-defense, and a statement that unlike any other country in the world, Israel does not have the right to defend itself.
While criticism of Israel is not automatically anti-Semitism, many writers feel the line is crossed when Israel is held to standards that no other country would accept for themselves.
Opponents of the fence point to instances where the fence’s path takes up orchards or separates Arab towns from nearby fields. In such cases, petitions can be made to the Israeli Supreme Court, and the court has ordered rerouting of the fence in some cases.
Of course, the Israeli government points out that if there were no suicide bombings, there would be no fence.
Since 2004, much has changed in the Middle East. The Palestinians have elected a government ruled by Hamas, which refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist. Israel pulled back from Gaza unilaterally, hoping the Palestinians would take advantage of the opportunity to rule their own affairs, but the situation has degenerated and groups routinely launch missiles into southern Israel.
Israel currently does not believe there is a Palestinian partner for peace who can deliver on any agreement, and is making plans for more unilateral disengagement steps if no leadership is forthcoming.
On a broader scale, ties between Israel and many other Arab countries are improving. Also, surveys released this month show European countries are much less sympathetic to the Palestinians because of their diplomatic and political mis-steps, and increasing terrorism aimed at Europeans from Muslim groups.