The move by the US church’s pension fund manager Wespath was taken under its ethical investment policy, as Israel falls among the “high risk” countries it has identified for “a prolonged and systematic pattern of human rights abuses.”
The United Methodist Church says it is the second largest Protestant denomination in the US and counts almost 13 million members worldwide.
United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR), a group that advocates within the church for Palestinian rights, hailed the measure as “the first time a major church pension fund has acted to preclude investment in Israeli banks that sustain Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land.”
The banks are Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, First International Bank of Israel, Israel Discount Bank and Mizrahi Tefahot Bank, which are all deeply involved in financing Israeli settlement and colonization in the occupied West Bank, including Jerusalem.
“Only a first step”
As of 30 September 2015, the fund held shares in two ineligible Israeli banks, Leumi and Hapoalim.
Wespath has now confirmed it has “taken action to remove from investment” the shares of seven firms that appear among its list of 39 ineligible companies, which would include the two Israeli banks.
“We commend the pension fund for taking this significant step in disassociating from the illegal occupation of Palestinian land,” UMKR co-chair Reverend Michael Yoshii said in a press release. “But as United Methodist policy opposes the occupation, this is only a first step towards ending our financial complicity in the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.”
In 2012, the church’s general conference rejected a motion calling for divestment, but adopted a policy calling for the boycott of goods made in Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land in violation of international law.
UMKR points out that Wespath still holds shares in 10 companies “located inside the illegal settlements and in several others that lend important support to Israel’s occupation.”
Reverend John Wagner, a member of the UMKR divestment committee, said his group urges Wespath fund managers “to maintain consistency and divest from all companies that profit from these same settlements.”
Bisan Mitri, a spokesperson for the Palestinian BDS National Committee, the steering group of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, welcomed the decision: “This historic step shows, with concrete measures, the ethical commitment of the United Methodist Church to peace and justice.”
“Israeli banks finance the decades-long occupation and oppression of Palestinians and are a key pillar in sustaining the brutality of Israel’s military, the unrelenting expansion of Israel’s settlements, and the plundering of Palestinian resources,” Mitri added.
Rifat Kassis of the Kairos Palestine initiative noted that the Methodists’ decision “is only the latest of the church denominations to take to heart the do-no-harm principle that Christian denominations hold dear.”
“We are getting closer to a united Christian front taking a principled, moral and effective stand against Israel’s occupation and violations of international law,” Kassis said.
Wespath’s decision to divest from the Israeli banks will give momentum to those campaigning for four proposals put forward by UMKR for the church to divest from other companies complicit in the Israeli occupation.
The resolutions will be considered at the church’s 2016 general conference in Portland, Oregon, in May.
In the past two years, the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ have adopted divestment. These hard-won decisions came after years-long debates in the face of stiff, well-funded opposition from Israel lobby groups.
In February 2014, Luxembourg’s state pension fund excluded Israel’s main banks from its investment portfolio because of their involvement in Israeli settlements and human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Other major financial institutions including the Dutch pensions giant PGGM have done the same.