DETROIT: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has become the most prominent religious group in the United States to endorse divestment as a protest against Israeli policies toward Palestinians, voting to sell church stock in three companies whose products Israel uses in the occupied territories. The General Assembly voted Friday by a razor-thin margin – 310-303 – to sell stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. Two years ago, the General Assembly rejected a similar divestment proposal by two votes.
Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, praised the vote as a “sweet victory for human rights.”
He said Presbyterian supporters of Palestinian rights have introduced divestment into the U.S. mainstream and have given Palestinians “real hope in the face of the relentless and intensifying cruelty of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid.”
The top Presbyterian legislative body has been considering divestment for a decade. Representatives of the Presbyterian socially responsible investment arm told the national meeting in Detroit that their efforts to lobby the three companies for change had failed. Carol Hylkema of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a Presbyterian group that advocates for Palestinians and spearheaded the drive for divestment, said their action was modeled on the divestment movement to end apartheid in South Africa. The 2012 assembly had endorsed a boycott of Israeli products made in the Palestinian territories.
“Because we are a historical peacemaking church, what we have done is, we have stood up for nonviolent means of resistance to oppression and we have sent a clear message to a struggling society that we support their efforts to resist in a nonviolent way the oppression being thrust upon them,” said the Rev. Jeffrey De Yoe, of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network.
The American Jewish Committee, a policy and advocacy group based in New York, said the vote was “driven by hatred of Israel.” But Heath Rada, moderator for the church meeting, said immediately after the vote that “in no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
The decision is expected to reverberate beyond the 1.8 million-member church. It comes amid discouragement over failed peace talks that have left activists desperate for some way to affect change and as BDS has gained some momentum in the U.S., Israel’s close and most important ally.
Israeli officials, along with many American Jewish groups, denounced the campaign as an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state. Separately, the assembly also voted to re-examine its support for a two-state solution.
In a statement the Israeli Embassy in Washington denounced the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) resolution as “shameful.”
“Voting for symbolic measures marginalizes and removes its ability to be a constructive partner to promote peace in the Middle East,” the statement said.
Rabbis and other members of Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates for Palestinians, lined the halls of the meeting and prayed in vigils outside the convention center wearing T-shirts that read, “Another Jew Supporting Divestment.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the liberal Union for Reform Judaism, which is the largest branch of American Judaism, addressed the delegates twice, urging them to reject divestment. After the vote, Jacobs said the denomination as a whole is no longer “a partner for joint work on Israel-Palestine peace issues.”
Two smaller U.S. religious groups have divested in protest of Israeli policies: the Friends Fiduciary Corp., which manages assets for U.S. Quakers, and the Mennonite Central Committee. Last week, the pension board of the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant group in the U.S., revealed plans to sell holdings worth about $110,000 in G4S, which provides security equipment and has contracts with Israel’s prison system.
Motorola Solutions said in a statement that the company follows the law and its own policies that address human rights. Hewlett-Packard said its checkpoints for Palestinians were developed to expedite passage “in a secure environment, enabling people to get to their place of work or to carry out their business in a faster and safer way.” Caterpillar has said it does not sell equipment to Israel, just to the U.S. government.
A church spokeswoman estimated the value of Presbyterian holdings in the companies at $21 million.