With audible gasps from those in the plenary hall, the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Friday narrowly approved divestment from three United States companies doing business in Israel-Palestine.
By a vote of 310-303, the Assembly approved an overture calling for divestment from Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, companies some allege are engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the region. A similar overture failed 333-331 at the 220th Assembly (2012).
Although divestment was its most debated item, the overture also affirms the PC(USA)’s commitment to interfaith and ecumenical dialogue and relationships in the region, and a preamble was added on the floor to reinforce that, saying, "The PC(USA) has a long-standing commitment to peace in Israel and Palestine. We recognize the complexity of the issues, the decades-long struggle, the pain suffered and inflicted by policies and practices of both the Israeli government and Palestinian entities. We further acknowledge and confess our own complicity in both the historic and current suffering of Israeli and Palestinian yearning for justice and reconciliation."
Immediately after the vote, Moderator Heath Rada reaffirmed that, saying, “In no way is this a reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.”
The overture included amended language acknowledging the complexities of the conflict in Israel-Palestine, the PC(USA)’s longstanding commitment to peace in the region, the suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians and the church’s complicity in that suffering.
The Assembly committee on Middle East Issues, which recommended the overture for approval, feels it is a “compassionate and holistic approach to relationships in the Middle East,” said committee moderator Teaching Elder Commissioner Stephen Choi.
Many opposed to divestment cited damaged relationships with Jewish partners as a major concern.
“Divestment has the symbolic power to humiliate our Jewish friends in this country,” said Teaching Elder Commissioner Sid Batts from the Presbytery of Salem. Batts serves a church across the street from a Jewish temple and values the strong relationship between the two congregations.
But many Jews are in favor of divestment, said Ben Falter, young adult advisory delegate from the Presbytery of Geneva.
“Just as we here have differing views, so too do our Jewish brothers and sisters,” he said.
Others opposed to the overture were concerned its passage would mistakenly align the PC(USA) with the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. The overture was amended to read: “This action on divestment does not mean an alignment with the overall strategy of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”
“We are already losing control of our message. Divestment will not end the conflict and bring peace. Divestment will bring dissension,” said Teaching Elder Commissioner Frank Allen from the Presbytery of Central Florida. “Dialogue and relationship building will lay the groundwork for real peace.”
Allen presented a minority report opposing divestment and encouraging the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee to continue its corporate engagement process with the three companies. MRTI has been engaged with the three companies since 2004 and recommends divestment.
Andries Coetzee, a teaching elder commissioner from the Presbytery of Muskingum Valley, referenced the PC(USA)’s divestment from companies supporting apartheid in South Africa. As a member of the oppressive white minority in South Africa, Coetzee thanked his fellow Presbyterians for divesting there and encouraged the Assembly to do the same for Israelis and Palestinians.
“You put me on the road to gaining back my humanity,” Coetzee said.
Other items of business from the Middle East committee:
- approval of an overture instructing the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to provide a history of General Assembly policies favoring a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine and to prepare a report to the 222nd Assembly (2016);
- disapproval of an overture affirming the human rights of Israelis and Palestinians but calling Israel an apartheid state;
- disapproval of an overture calling for the boycott of all Hewlett-Packard products;
- an overture reaffirming the PC(USA)’s commitment to the human rights of all children, especially those in Israel/Palestine; and
- an overture endorsing a paper written by the Ecumenical and Interreligious Work Group of the Presbytery of Chicago, “Perspectives on Presbyterian Church (USA) Support for a Just and Peaceful Compromise of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” The paper was cited as a third-way solution, but many commissioners expressed concern that they didn’t receive the paper in time to read it.