Presbyterian divestment proposal spurs heated debate

July 3, 2012 9:12 am
By Benjamin Mueller / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Committee on Middle East and Peacemaking Issues of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly spent the day Monday locked in heated debate over a proposal to divest its funds from companies whose products are used by Israel to enforce occupation of the West Bank.

The committee listened to impassioned testimony from American Jews, Palestinian Christians and Presbyterians and waded through sometimes contentious disagreements over a proper way forward. PCUSA’s biannual meetings are being held Downtown this week at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Brian Ellison, chair of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee, introduced the topic by arguing that the church should not profit from investing its pension and charitable funds in companies whose actions conflict with church values.

He charged Hewlett-Packard with selling hardware used by Israel in its naval blockade of Gaza, Motorola with supplying surveillance technology to Israeli settlements, and Caterpillar with providing militarized machines that raze Palestinian homes.

“To not divest at this point would represent a substantial change to a 40-year history of socially responsible investing,” he said. “Divestment is a normal conclusion to a normal practice when engagement is not going to work. We’ve concluded that it will not.”

Rami Khouri, a Palestinian Christian from Nazareth and an official advocate for divestment, said that Jesus’ example demands that the church take decisive action against injustice. Dialogue is not enough, he said.

“When Jesus walked into the temple and overthrew the money changers [for bringing commerce into the temple], he overthrew the money changers’ carts. He didn’t just tell them to think about it.”

Others spoke in favor of what they called a more creative course of action, including continued pressure on companies through shareholder meetings and positive investment in Israel and Palestine. The Rev. Bill Borror of Philadelphia warned that a vote in favor of divestment would energize a global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement organized by Palestinian civil society that doesn’t explicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist.

“It’s connected rhetorically if not spiritually with the broader BDS movement,” he said. “If you vote for it, you’re participating in that.”

When the committee opened a public hearing, speakers cut through the morass of parliamentary procedure and told piercing personal stories of Palestinian suffering.

Bekah Wolf, a Jew from Santa Fe, N.M., strode to the podium with her half-Palestinian daughter and spoke about her husband, a Palestinian farmer, whose 100-year-old vineyards were uprooted by Caterpillar bulldozers.

“That was my daughter’s inheritance,” she said. “Please do what you can now.”

Moriah Mason, a Jew from Trafford, said divestment was one of the few remaining nonviolent tools that could attract attention to discriminatory policies. Too often, she said, attempts at nonviolence are met with violence from Israeli police or ignored by the media.

Those opposed to divestment worried that it would undermine productive interfaith relations with Jewish congregations around the country, citing joint trips to Israel and help for the homeless. Gary Davis of Illinois spoke about church friends who work for Caterpillar and feel demonized by divestment.

“Divestment will drive away many of our members,” he said. “Jesus warned us about the tyranny of good intentions.”

The mood grew tense when two speakers accused Mr. Ellison of misrepresenting the process his committee used to come to its divestment recommendation. In question was whether his committee had engaged actively enough with the three companies.

“They’re lying,” he whispered from the back of the room, before returning to the podium to speak again about his committee’s thorough outreach efforts to the offending companies.

Outside the meeting room, Cindy Corrie, whose daughter Rachel was run over and killed by an Israeli Caterpillar bulldozer while she was volunteering in the Gaza Strip in 2003, complimented the Presbyterian body on including so many voices in discussions over the Israeli occupation.

“We’re all complicit in this,” she said. “We’re seeing the beginning of something very necessary.”

The Committee on Middle East and Peacemaking Issues will vote by this afternoon on a proposal that will then be sent to the general church body for a final vote.

Benjamin Mueller:, 412-263-4903.
First Published July 3, 2012 12:00 am

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