The General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) is recommending that the upcoming 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) divest the church of its stock in three companies “until they have ceased profiting from non-peaceful activities in Israel-Palestine.”
The three companies are Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard.
At issue are their participation in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the construction of the “security barrier” between Israel and Palestinian territory, and the destruction of Palestinian homes, roads and fields to make way for the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which have been declared illegal under international law.
“We have run out of hope that these companies are willing to change their corporate practices [in Israel-Palestine],” said the Rev. Brian Ellison, a Kansas City pastor and chair of the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI). “We have made diligent effort to engage in conversation. We’d like to do more, to make progress, but substantial change does not seem possible.”
MRTI has engaged six companies regarding their business practices in Israel-Palestine since the 2004 PC(USA) General Assembly launched its corporate engagement process. Three of the six companies have since been removed from consideration.
Citigroup reached an agreement with MRTI on modifying their activities in the region. ITT Industries has divided and its subsidiary in Israel now falls under MRTI’s military-related rubric. Dialogue is continuing with United Technologies.
“This is not a boycott,” Ellison insisted, “nor is it a call for general divestment. “We hold stock in many companies that do business in Israel and the West Bank. What we are asking is divestment from particular companies where engagement has not been productive.”
Noting that the PC(USA) has consistently condemned violence by both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict and since 1948 has called for a “two-state solution” with secure borders for both Israel and Palestine, Ellison said, “We are trying to engage both sides. Our sole goal is a just peace.”
Kears Pollock, a council member and retired corporate executive from Bruin, Pa., opposed the recommendation, saying that divestment is “ineffective and unproductive and actually goes against peacemaking. In fact, some of these activities have actually saved lives. This action condemns every businessman sitting in Presbyterian pews across the country.”
Council member Teresa Bazemore of Penn Valley, Pa., replied that “the [divestment] issue has been painted with too broad a brush. “We are invested in many companies engaged in peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine. These three companies have made a conscious decision not to do so. It is our right and responsibility not to invest in these companies.”
Opposing the recommendation, the Rev. Clark Cowden, executive of San Diego Presbytery, said “there will be some pretty strong negative consequences in some of our congregations and presbyteries ― the costs are greater than the benefits.”
Council member Jean Demmler of Denver agreed that a divestment decision “will cause more dissension and I’m sorry about that, but MRTI has engaged in a very good process, very thoughtfully, and we just cannot profit from these companies.”
The recommendation to the Assembly includes renewal of the call by the 2010 Assembly “to all corporations doing business in the region to confine their business activity solely to peaceful pursuits, and refrain from allowing their products or services to support of facilitate violence acts by Israelis or Palestinians against innocent civilians, construction and maintenance of settlements or Israeli-only roads in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory, and construction of the Separation Barrier as it extends beyond the 1967 “Green Line” into Palestinian territories.”
The PC(USA) policy on socially responsible investing was established by the 1971 General Assembly. In 1976, the Assembly established the rubric for corporate engagement, which includes proxy voting, dialogue with companies, shareholder resolutions, public appeals and ― as a last resort ― divestment.
Historically, the church has divested itself of companies engaged in military activities as their primary business and companies engaged in alcohol, tobacco and gambling. Over the years, MRTI has also engaged in such socially responsible investment-related issues as apartheid in South Africa, sweat shop labor in other countries, environmental issues, pay equity and fair compensation, affirmative action/equal employment opportunity, corporate governance and violence in the media.