No easy victories: Presbyterian Church USA divestment measure loses by only two votes

Caterpillar machinery is used by Israeli forces to destroy the Shepherd Hotel in occupied East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlement colonies, January 2011.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler

“Tell no lies; claim no easy victories,” said the West African anti-colonial revolutionary Amilcar Cabral in 1965. These words ring true for those of us dedicated to helping end the US-funded Israeli military occupation, and working towards the fulfillment of the full rights of the Palestinian people. We know that the struggle to justice is an uphill one.

But after a measure to divest approximately $17 million of the Presbyterian Church USA’s funds from corporations profitting from the Israeli occupation was defeated by only two votes in Pittsburgh tonight, “no easy victories” is just as true for groups who wield much more power and boast far greater resources than the Palestine solidarity movement.

Instead of voting to divest from corporations profitting from the Israeli occupation, the general assembly adopted a measure for “positive investment” and creative engagement with “Israel/Palestine.” As The New York Times reported:

By a vote of 333 to 331, with two abstentions, the church’s General Assembly voted at its biennial meeting in Pittsburgh to toss out the divestment measure and replace it with a resolution to encourage “positive investment” in the occupied territories. The results were so close that, when posted electronically in front of the convention, they evoked a collective gasp. After two and a half hours of passionate debate, the replacement resolution to invest in the territories passed more easily, 369 to 290, with eight abstentions.

Parroting Zionist talking points

My colleague Nora Barrows-Friedman wrote about the desperate efforts made by Zionist groups to try to derail the historic divestment vote at the Presbyterian Church USA’s general assembly (Mondoweiss has a nice summary of anti-divestment lobbying here). The fruits of those efforts were seen during a debate during the general assembly tonight.

Some delegates regurgitated pro-Israel, anti-justice talking points equivocating Israeli occupation and Palestinian resistance. Another delegate criticized the divestment initiative for singling out Israel, invoking what he called Iran’s repression of the Baha’is and Syria’s repression of Sunni Muslims. The dubious authenticity of his concern for Baha’is in Iran and Sunni Muslims in Syria aside, it was a classic tactic from the Israel advocacy playbook — exploit other human rights struggles to distract from the Israeli occupation, to which the US government is a party.

(I was left wondering how many millions the Presbyterian Church USA has invested in corporations profiting from repression of Baha’i people in Iran and Sunni Muslims in Syria — my guess is it is dwarfed in comparison to their holdings of Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Helwett-Packard, the three companies in question tonight.)

The pressure placed on delegates (described by one young woman as “bullying”) to vote against divestment was also clear when delegates expressed anxiety about divestment creating divisions between Presbyterian and Jewish communities. Another classic tactic — conflating Israel with Judaism when it comes to holding Israel to account for human rights violations.

The battle may be won …

But despite these heavy-hitting groups’ efforts to undermine the divestment vote, there was no easy victory for them tonight. Delegate after delegate, including several young people and people of color, came forward to speak in support of justice and for divestment.

And there was no debate over Israel’s actions, none of the expected invocations of “security” in defense of Israel’s violence — the debate was over what the Presbyterian Church’s responsibility should be in the face of acknowledged injustice. That the discourse has shifted from getting major institutions like the Presbyterian Church USA to recognize the injustice happening in Palestine (with our tax money), to what responsibility such institutions have towards this injustice — is huge.

Tonight’s vote isn’t the end, of course. More Palestine-related measures are still up for debate during the general assembly tomorrow, and it seems from what some are reporting on Twitter, the divestment defeat isn’t written in stone.




I urge PSUSA folks to visit the Occupied Territoires and see for themselves what occupation is and what it does to our brothers and sisters living and serving there. Next time, the divestment vote would be at 100%.

Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.