Presbyterians Promote Divestment Compromise

At some point this week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) will consider a measure to affirm the intent — if not the wording — of a 2004 divestment resolution that alarmed the pro-Israel community, while apologizing to the Jewish community for what many committee members considered a public-relations nightmare.

In a lengthy deliberation on June 17, the church’s Peacemaking and International Issues Committee sifted through almost 30 Overtures that were submitted on the 2004 resolution, which called for a process that would target multi-national companies that are seen as profiting from Israel’s “occupation” of the territories.

Many in the pro-Israel community hoped the church would completely rescind the resolution, while pro-Palestinian groups pushed for its reaffirmation. The Presbyterian General Assembly is convening in Birmingham through June 22.

The compromise Overture, which was passed 53-6, replaces language from 2004 calling for phased, selective divestment with a call stating that Presbyterian investments in the area “be invested only in peaceful pursuits.”

Amendments may still be offered at a business session scheduled to start at 2 p.m. on June 18. A date for the overall GA to consider the measure has not been set, and can be any time from Monday to Thursday morning.

The committee heard from a variety of speakers on both sides of the issue on June 16. At its morning session on June 17, advocates for each of the Overtures had two minutes to give their views. About 250 people, including the 61 committee members, crowded into an expanded meeting room to hear the proceedings.

After lunch, the members broke into small groups to process what they had heard and come up with their views. The room was papered with posters reporting from each committee.

After the members had time to look at all the sheets, they took colored dots and pasted them on sheets indicating which Overtures most conformed to their views.

Debate centered around two most-favored resolutions — one submitted by the Mississippi Presbytery and one by Chicago. The Mississippi one, which was seen as the strongest one against the 2004 resolution, was moved and discussed for over an hour, at which point it was suggested that the group meet as a committee of the whole, to get a sense about what areas the members wanted to see in a compromise resolution.

The Chicago Overture, which was favored 35-25 during the colored dot vote, sought investment in “peaceful pursuits” including the “appropriate reinvestment of funds where necessary.”

A draft was hammered out by an 11-member subcommittee during the evening and presented at 8:45 p.m. After the draft was approved, the Mississippi Overture was defeated 40-11, but some supporters said they may bring it to the GA as a minority position for consideration.

Elder Kenneth Robbins, who spoke on behalf of the writing subcommittee, said “Every one of us swallowed very hard and worked through this.”

Because the term “divestment” had caused such controversy, the subcommittee worked to fashion a document that would not have any words seen as controversial or loaded. For that reason, there was no language to “rescind” divestment, because that would be seen as an abandonment of something that “was a great gift to the Palestinian people,” Elder Nabeel Saoud of San Fernando Presbytery said. To rescind divestment “would be pulling out the rug from underneath them.”

Some who voted against the compromise did so because it did not specifically rescind divestment.

An amendment to add recognition of Israel’s “right to defend its citizens from acts of terrorism” passed by one vote, but was later reconsidered and voted down because of the charged nature of the word “terrorism.”

Anthony Damelio of Western Reserve Presbytery also said the language “implies the Palestinians are the only ones doing terror attacks.”

That debate was over a paragraph that also took issue with Israel’s “security wall,” in areas where it “violates Palestinian land that was not part of Israel before 1967.”

When it was suggested that the issue of the fence be taken out of discussion, Elder Janet Lawrence of West Jersey objected, calling the fence “an abomination.”

An amendment to strike a call to “end the occupation” because the language is politically charged was voted down.

The first part of the compromise was an apology to the Jewish community for the controversy. Many expressed frustration at how the issue was presented by the media in 2004, and how the church did not adequately explain the motivation behind the overture.

Divestment and the Church

The PC-USA declared decades ago that church investment is “an investment of mission and includes theological, social and economic considerations.”

To that end, the church uses “socially responsible investing” as established by its Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee to screen out objectionable companies. Among the categories cited are gambling, alcohol, tobacco and military companies.

Carol Hylkema, MRTI chairperson, also cited issues of violent video games, predatory lending, human rights and climate change.

The committee meets with companies that pursue policies counter to the church’s teachings, in an effort to have them change their ways.

If no progress is made, shareholder advocacy may be used, through proxy votes and shareholder resolutions. As a last resort, MRTI can recommend divestment of the church’s stock in a company, with the final decision made by the GA.

The GA passed the 2004 divestment overture thinking it would be seen in this context of the church’s history of “corporate engagement.”

Rev. William Somplatsky-Jarman, MRTI Associate, said “We have been faithful to this in a wide variety of areas around the world,” and cited church action on human rights issues in China, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Chile, El Salvador, Syria, Iran and others.

Discussing the controversy

Rev. William Borror of Philadelphia said “our very specific passionate statements can have unforeseen consequences… any time we can say we were wrong and overstated something offers an opportunity for grace and healing.”

Elder Rodney Nitz said the 2004 language was “unfortunate” but the intent was to deal with a problem. He urged not to back away from the “intent of 2004.”

Damelio decried how the discussion was ignoring the issues facing Palestinians. “The United States and Americans support Israel, and the Palestinians are left hanging,” he said. He noted the outrage over the 2004 resolution by stating “we’re not supposed to hinge on public criticism, we’re supposed to look at what God wants.”

Rev. Barry Hall of Upper Ohio Valley Presbytery said he was not opposed to divestment, but “I didn’t like what happened in 2004,” because the resolution “got so one-sided.”

Jim Young of Eastern Virginia was on the budget committee in 2004 — which along with international affairs was the originating point for the issue — and stated that “I, our committees and the entire GA were not given sufficient information to have informed decision-making in place.”

He said the committee was given very little information “on this complex situation. We were simply told this was a way to bring attention to this issue.”

When committee members asked if the Jewish community had been consulted, they were told that “Jewish groups were contacted and had no problem with it,” he said. That is why he was “flabbergasted” at the response.

Pete Bloss of Westminster Presbyterian in Gulfport, who spoke on behalf of the Mississippi Overture, said an Elder who had attended the 2004 GA came back to Gulfport afterward and slammed his hand on the table in frustration over the divestment overture. According to Bloss, he said it was wrong and “we had to do something about it.”

They sent a protest to the church, but when a Jewish organist who had served the First Presbyterian Church of Bay St. Louis resigned in protest, Bloss said they realized that “just sending a resolution of protest is not good enough — we have to introduce legislation to change this, stop this.”

During his presentation for the Sheppards and Lapsley (Central Alabama) Overture, Rev. Ed Hurley spoke of his visit to Israel in late May, during which he met with Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

Six days before their visit to a yeshiva in Sderot, near the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian rocket came through the ceiling of a classroom. Had not a prayer service gone on five minutes too long, the room would have been full of students.

Since that visit three weeks earlier, Hurley noted, over 100 more rockets have rained down on that area.

The resolution under consideration:
We acknowledge that the actions of the 216th General Assembly caused hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion. We are grieved by the pain that this has caused, accept responsibility for the flaws in our process, and ask for a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.

To these ends, we replace the instructions expressed in Item 12-01 (Minutes, 2004 Part I, pp. 64-66) item 7, which reads

“7. Refers to Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) with instructions to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance to General Assembly policy on social investing, and to make appropriate recommendations to the General Assembly Council for action.”

with the following:

“To urge that financial investments of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, be invested in only peaceful pursuits, and affirm that the customary corporate engagement process of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment of our denomination is the proper vehicle for achieving this goal.”

2) Direct the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) to ensure that its strategies for engaging corporations with regard to Israeli and Palestinian territories are consistent with the following principles:

a. They should reflect the application of fundamental principles of justice and peace common to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism that are appropriate to the practical realities of Israeli and Palestinian societies.

b. They should reflect commitment to positive outcomes.

c. They should reflect awareness of potential impact upon the stability, future viability, and prosperity of both the Israeli and Palestinian economies.

d. Identify affirmative investment opportunities as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

3) We call upon the Church:

a. To work through peaceful means with American and Israeli Jewish, American and Palestinian Muslim, and Palestinian Christian communities and their affiliated organizations for an end to all violence and terror against Palestinian and Israeli civilians.

b. To work through peaceful means with American and Israeli Jewish, American and Palestinian Muslim, and Palestinian Christian communities and their affiliated organizations to end the occupation.

c. To work through peaceful means with American and Israeli Jewish, American and Palestinian Muslim, and Palestinian Christian communities and their affiliated organizations towards the creation of a socially, economically, geographically and politically viable and secure Palestinian state, alongside an equally viable and secure Israeli state, both of which have a right to exist.

d. To encourage and celebrate efforts by individual Presbyterians, congregations, and judicatories of our church to communicate directly and regularly with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities, sponsor programs likely to improve relations among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and engage in peacemaking in the Middle East.

4) The 217th General Assembly (2006) does not believe that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should tell a sovereign nation whether it can protect its borders or handle matters of national defense. The problem with the security wall, in 2004 and presently, is its location. The 217th General Assembly (2006) supports fair criticism of the security wall insofar as it illegally encroaches into the Palestinian territory and fails to follow the legally recognized borders of Israel since 1967 demarcated by the Green Line. To the extent that the security barrier violates Palestinian land that was not part of Israel prior to the 1967 war, the barrier should be dismantled and relocated.

5) Recognizing that the situation on the ground in the Israel-Palestine area is rapidly changing, GAC is directed to carefully monitor ongoing developments of the situation in the Middle East and to examine the policies of the PCUSA related to the Middle East, in order to make a comprehensive report to the 218th General Assembly (2008).

6) Instructs the Stated Clerk to communicate Recommendations 1 through 5 above to the United States’ president, vice president, secretary of state, and members of Congress; to Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the Middle East; to the membership of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); and to leadership of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith bodies and denominations in the United States and the Middle East with whom we are in communication.