Palestinians and solidarity activists are celebrating a historic vote by the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) to divest from three companies that profit from and assist Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people.
After hours of debate and a decade of intense, hard-fought efforts, PCUSA’s 221st general assembly in Detroit voted on Friday night by 310-303 to divest the church’s holdings in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
Despite a “decade of engagement,” the three firms “have failed to modify their behavior and continue to profit from Israeli human rights abuses and non-peaceful pursuits,” Reverend Walt Davis, a member of the PCUSA Israel/Palestine Mission Network, said in an emailed statement welcoming the decision.
The Presbyterian Church divestment decision “is inspiring and morally courageous. It is a victory for all peace with justice loving people around the world,” said Bisan Mitri of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee.
“It shows that commitment to justice comes with a moral obligation to act: the time has come for other church denominations to follow suit,” she said.
At its last general assembly two years ago, a similar divestment measure failed to pass by just two votes.
Palestinian churches have played a key role in boosting support for divestment among North American congregations. In 2009, Palestinian Christians issued the Kairos Palestine document, calling on churches around the world to take action for justice, including specifically support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
“For the Palestinians”
“This victory, close as it was, is for the Palestinians and may it bring hope where there is so much darkness and abuse right now,” Reverend Donald Wagner, national director of Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), told The Electronic Intifada.
“We know our work will not be done until Palestine is liberated from the forces of colonization and oppression. We also hope Israel will see the light and realize that their choice of brutality and deception will no longer be sustainable,” he added.
“This decision will have real consequences, sending a message to Palestinians that the ongoing violations of their human rights is worthy of action on the global stage, and to companies and the Israeli government that the occupation is both morally and economically untenable,” JVP added.
The Presbyterian decision comes just over a week after the pension fund of the United Methodist Church divested from prison and occupation profiteer G4S, due in part to concerns over the company’s dealings with the Israel Prison Service.
“These successful campaigns illustrate the mainstreaming of divestment from the Israeli occupation as a nonviolent tactic to end US complicity in the violation of Palestinian rights,” Anna Baltzer, national organizer of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a coalition of more than 400 organizations, said in a statement.
FOSNA’s Wagner hailed the interfaith work that had been a key part of the campaign: “Presbyterians saw 25-30 mostly young Jews working side by side with justice-oriented Presbyterians, together playing a major role in this victory.”
Wagner also noted the intense efforts by divestment opponents. “On the other side we found the well financed pro-Israel lobby, including many Presbyterians who had gone on one-sided pro-Israel junkets,” he said.
While the BDS movement has been gaining greater coverage and attention, the Presbyterian vote received high-profile media coverage, including articles in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, Associated Press and in Israeli and Arabic-language media.
Anti-Palestinian groups expressed anger and dismay at the vote, lobbing thinly-disguised accusations of anti-Semitism at Presbyterians.
Presbyterian “leaders have fomented an atmosphere of open hostility to Israel within the church, promoted a one-sided presentation of the complex realities of the Middle East, and permitted the presentation of a grossly distorted image of the views of the Jewish community,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement.
The American Jewish Committee said that the divestment vote was “a setback for efforts to attain a negotiated, sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and a breach with a Jewish community committed to Jewish-Christian relations.”
Accusations of anti-Semitism “losing power”
In reaction to the Presbyterian vote, former Israeli prison guard and Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted that “The idea of Christians lecturing Jews about morality is pretty funny to Jews who spent the past 2,000 years running away from their Christian torturers and tormentors.”
In its statement, Jewish Voice for Peace said that such “attempts to cynically use accusations of anti-semitism to forestall principled actions are losing power.”
It called on “Jewish institutions who claim to oppose the occupation to drop their spurious criticisms of divestment and instead join us in taking concrete action to change policy.”
Given that Zionist groups’ efforts at what FOSNA’s Donald Wagner has previously called “interfaith bullying” have failed to stop the divestment effort so far, the vote in Detroit may leave opponents of Palestinian rights searching for new strategies to try to stop the march.
“But we cannot and will not rest until Palestine is free,” Wagner said. “Now it is on to the Methodists, more universities and hopefully more victories as the movement is destined to grow – if we do the hard work of organizing for justice.”