A decision by a group within the Presbyterian Church USA to reintroduce a resolution calling for divestment from companies doing business with Israel is reopening a long-running controversy over the church’s positions on Israel.
The church’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment released a report Sept. 9 arguing that the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church divest from Motorola, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar.
“The General Assembly asked us to do everything we could to bring about change through dialogue,” said committee chair the Rev. Brian Ellison, a pastor from Kansas City, Mo., in a statement. “Today we are sadly reporting that these efforts have not produced any substantive change in company policies or practices, and that there is little reason for hope they will do so in the future. According to the Assembly’s prior directives and the church’s ordinary engagement process, we have little choice but to recommend divestment.”
The report already has sparked intense debate within the church and is likely to make more waves when it is introduced at the next biennial general assembly in July.
“There will be vigorous debate on this,” Susan Andrews, the general presbyter of the Hudson Valley, in New York, told JTA. “The church has been split on this for years.”
The call for divestment also has provoked angry reaction from some Jewish groups. The American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League issued statements condemning the recommendation.
“This renewed effort by some within the Presbyterian Church to penalize Israel does not advance peace,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s director of intergroup and interreligious relations. “On the contrary, threatening divestment undermines those who are truly committed to Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
An organization called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace released a statement condemning the report’s authors as giving a “friendly ear” to “a small group of activists within the Presbyterian Church that has relentlessly sought to punish Israel” and want “to find one party at fault in a conflict where all parties have engaged in positive or negative actions.”
Pastor John Wimberly of the Western Presbyterian Church and a co-convener of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace told JTA that the measure was unlikely to be adopted. He cited polls that show a gap between “specialized clergy”—clergy without pulpits—and other groups within the church, with the former more likely to support Israeli withdrawal from West Bank and eastern Jerusalem and less likely to support strong U.S.-Israel ties and relations between Jews and Presbyterians.
In a statement, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace promised to fight the report from being adopted.
“The general assembly would have to go against the opinion of the majority of Presbyterians,” Wimberly said. “It will be a struggle; they are determined although a very small group. We just have to make sure this small group can’t do something very big.”
In 2006, the church replaced a 2004 policy that called for “phased selective divestment” from multinational corporations operating in Israel with one that called for investment in Israel, the Gaza Strip, eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank “in only peaceful pursuits.” In 2008, the church’s general assembly instructed Presbyterians to avoid over-identifying with one side on the Israel-Palestine conflict.