Divestment battle to return to Presbyterian Church

Israeli occupation forces use a Caterpillar bulldozer to destroy a Palestinian home in the al-Tur neighborhood in Jerusalem, May 2013. 

Sliman Khader APA images

The general assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUSA) will be asked to vote this summer to divest church assets from three companies engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the occupied Palestinian territories.

A similar measure was narrowly defeated in 2012, after anti-Palestinian and Jewish communal groups mounted a high-profile campaign.

If that episode is a guide, then this summer’s PCUSA general assembly in Detroit is likely, once again, to be the focus of considerable attention.

Israel lobby groups can be expected to renew their effort to halt initiatives aimed at holding Israel accountable for abuses and promoting Palestinian rights and a just peace.


In a press release yesterday, the PCUSA’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment, said that it “has found three corporations — Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions – not in compliance” with church policy on “socially responsible investing and will recommend” that they “be added to the denomination’s divestment list.”

Their “non-peaceful” activities include participating in Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands and associated activities such as home demolitions and construction of settlements and Israeli-only roads.

“Engagement” failed

“After years of corporate engagement through 2013 and utilizing all tools that we had available to us, these three companies remain entrenched in their involvement in non-peaceful pursuits, and regrettably show no signs of their behavior changing,” said Elizabeth Terry Dunning, the committee chair.

Perhaps seeking to avoid the frequent charge that such measures single Israel out, the committee’s press release notes that the church has previously divested “from major companies engaged in weapons production including land mines and cluster bombs, companies involved in human rights violations in South Africa and Sudan, as well as companies engaged in alcohol, tobacco and gambling” among others.

Israel lobby effort

At the 2012 general assembly in Pittsburgh (the body meets every two years), a divestment measure was narrowly defeated by 333 to 331, with two abstentions after days of impassioned debate.

The body did, however, vote in favor of a ban on settlement goods. The narrow loss for divestment followed intense lobbying efforts by anti-Palestinian groups which included many thinly disguised accusations of anti-Semitism.

The effort was spearheaded by the Israel Action Network (IAN), a multi-million dollar initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, that aims to combat Palestinian rights.

In a 2013 report, IAN outlined its diversion tactics including “interfaith” initiatives that proclaimed a desire for “peace,” portrayed a false parity between Israeli occupiers and their Palestinian victims but opposed any practical action to hold Israel accountable.

IAN also sponsored junkets to bring Presbyterian and other Christian leaders to present-day Israel.

“Anti-Jewish” claims

A key part of the strategy involved the accusation that supporting divestment from US-based companies profiting from military occupation would harm Christian-Jewish relations.

The IAN report claimed, for example, that there had been “a dramatic increase” in “anti-Jewish rhetoric from groups promoting anti-Israel boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS).”

“The programs, websites, and social media of church groups supporting BDS have been a matter of grave concern,” it continued. “Examples include rhetoric focused on Jews and money, denial of Jewish national identity, and anti-Jewish theology. The alliance of these groups with pro-BDS extremist groups in the Jewish community does not excuse the use of such anti-Jewish tropes.”

The IAN report offered no evidence to support these claims.

Zionism Unsettled

This year, those facing such allegations will have a new tool to educate members of their congregations about the facts on the ground in Palestine.

This month, the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of PCUSA released Zionism Unsettled, a 74-page study guide that examines the role “Zionism and Christian Zionism played in shaping attitudes and driving historical developments in the Middle East and around the world.”

In an endorsement I wrote of Zionism Unsettled, I said that the guide “is necessary reading for anyone who believes the churches – in the best tradition of social justice advocacy – can support Palestinians in their quest for full rights in their land.”

Anyone reading Zionism Unsettled will be much better equipped to understand and argue just how offensive it is to people of all faiths and ethics for IAN and others to claim that standing against military occupation, war-profiteering and human rights crimes is somehow an attack on Jewish people or the Jewish faith.