Before the sermon at each of the three services at Bel Air Presbyterian Church last Sunday, the Rev. Mark Allan Brewer did something unusual -- he protested. Speaking in a clear, forceful voice, the reverend denounced the 216th annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian church's decision to selectively divest funds from companies doing business in Israel.
"This may come as a surprise to you, but we are a Presbyterian church, which means that we are affiliated with a group called the General Assembly, which sometimes makes controversial decisions," he said.
"I don't want to impugn their motives, but it seems that they fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch going down. The idea that withholding funds is going to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is ridiculous," he told the standing-room-only crowd of 600 in the large, airy church at the 11 a.m. service. The crowd greeted his remarks with applause and laughter.
The Presbyterian assembly, which controls a $7 billion endowment fund, voted 431 to 62 at its June 26-July 3 meeting to divest from companies whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to Palestinians or Israelis. It took the action in order to oppose "the Israeli occupation of Palestine." However, it did not authorize a blanket divestment from all companies doing business in Israel.
Jewish groups, local Presbyterians and other Christian denominations have roundly condemned the assembly's action. Those opposing the divestment move charge that it essentially punishes Israel for protecting its citizens, will hurt its economy and provide an impetus for other divestment campaigns, in addition to irreparably damaging relations between the Jewish community and the Presbyterian church in the United States.
"There might be some economic or financial results [for Israel] to this decision, but the main source of concern is that a main church organization decided to take a path of pressure instead of dialogue," said Zvi Vapni, deputy consul general of Israel in Los Angeles.
The Presbyterian Church, with 11,000 congregations in the United States and 2 million members, is considered more liberal on social issues than its evangelical counterparts. At the church's annual General Assembly, which will now meet biannually, ministers and lay delegates from 170 presbyteries (local governing bodies) met to "vote their conscience" on church policy.
This year's meeting marked the first time the issue of divestment of funds from companies doing business with Israel was brought up at the Presbyterian gathering. However, divestment of funds from companies as a tool to put pressure on a country is not new. It was used in the 1980s to pressure South Africa to abandon apartheid
In 2001, a group of UC Berkeley students and faculty, called Students for Justice in Palestine, lobbied the University of California system to divest itself of Israel-related investment funds. It sought the divestment in order to protest Israeli settlements and what the group considered Israel's "apartheid" policies concerning Palestinians. Since then, anti-Israel divestment lobbying groups have established themselves on other U.S. campuses.
Divestment, has also become a central doctrine and effort by such activist left-wing groups as Global Exchange, which organized protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.
Up until the Presbyterian assembly decision, no major U.S. organization or group had agreed to divestment involving companies doing business with Israel. In its decision, the assembly said that it approved a "call for the corporate witness office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to begin gathering data to support a selective divestment of holdings in multinational corporations doing business in Israel/Palestine -- the church's Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee [will] study the matter and make recommendations to the General Assembly Council."
The Mission Responsibility Committee will issue its report to the council in March 2005. There are no specifics available on how or when divestment will be handled once the report is released.
While the assembly voiced support for Israel's security, it also "called for an end to Israel's construction of the 'separation barrier.'" It also declared that "Christian Zionism is not consistent with the basic values of reformed theology [that Presbyterianism is based on], because it makes use of idiosyncratic interpretations of Scripture to undergird a certain reading of current events and to generate support for specific political goals that potentially endanger Palestinian and Israeli people."
Israel is not the only Presbyterian divestment target. On its Web page, the Mission Responsibility Committee urges divestment from companies involved in military-related production, tobacco or human rights violations. It lists 21 companies, including Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. The Web site also notes that the 2000 General Assembly voted to divest from Talisman Energy "after a review of the company's role in Sudan."
Jay Rock, a church interfaith relations coordinator, said that the Mission Responsibility Committee would use the same criteria in formulating its recommendations to the General Assembly Council on Israel. No specifics on the criteria were made public. It is also unclear how much of the $7 billion endowment would be divested from companies doing business with Israel.
"We are not talking about divesting from companies that invest in computers and pharmaceuticals or health infrastructure, only from such activity that is judged to be harmful," Rock said.
The Presbyterian church's support for divestiture was greeted with anger and disapproval from Jewish groups, Presbyterians congregants and other Christian denominations after The Forward newspaper erroneously reported that the church voted to "stop investing in Israel."
Talk-show host Dennis Prager wrote a scathing critique of the Presbyterian church on his Web site, comparing it to "Goebbel's big lie." The divestiture was also condemned in The New Republic and in Front Page Magazine. Both the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and B'nai B'rith International said that the assembly's divestiture vote and a decision to continue funding messianic congregations called into question efforts at interfaith dialogue between the Jewish community and the Presbyterian church.
After the church issued a statement clarifying that it was a selective divestiture, not a blanket one, ADL leaders proposed a meeting to discuss the issues.
In Los Angeles, grass-roots pro-Israel organization StandWithUs issued an e-mail alert urging its followers to protest the divestiture by writing to the Mission Responsibility Committee. In Chicago, Jewish groups protested outside the Fourth Presbyterian Church last Sunday.
"To me, this is crossing the line," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California . "I would like them to withdraw the resolution."
Diamond said he planned to meet with his Presbyterian colleagues from the Interreligious Council of Southern California and the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders to express his concerns.
"The problem with the divestiture is that it sets a precedent for other organizations, like the Methodists and Baptists, to do the same thing. This could be the instigator for something much broader," said Avi Davis, executive director of the Israel Christian Nexus, an interfaith dialogue group, who called for a meeting between Christian and Jewish clerics in August to discuss the issue and try to get it changed.
Other Christian groups, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Baptist.org, an online registry of all Baptist organizations, said they were not planning similar divestitures.
Ministers from two of the largest Presbyterian congregations in Southern California, Bel Air Presbyterian and St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, told The Journal that they received phone calls and e-mails from many angry members threatening to leave the denomination because of the divestiture.
"I spent the whole week responding to letters from my people who were ready to leave the Presbyterian church, because of what Dennis [Prager] said," reported the Rev. John Huffman of St. Andrews Presbyterian in Newport Beach, a 4,700-member congregation that is the largest U.S. Presbyterian church. "I had to devote a third of my sermon time to this issue."
The decision also provoked the disapproval among evangelicals.
"The Presbyterians have forgotten the clear teachings of the word of God. The Presbyterians have forgotten the Jewish contribution to Christianity," said the Rev. John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, a nondenominational evangelical church of 18,000 members. Hagee said he would instruct his followers to write letters to the Presbyterian church protesting the divestiture.
"It's very distressing, but I'm not as distressed about it as many of my friends in the Jewish community are," said Patricia Johnson, liaison to the Christian community for the Israel Christian Nexus. "This represents a small minority of Christians, and does not represent the 60 million evangelicals who do not agree with divestment and who do support Israel."
Rock told The Journal that he had "no response" to people who were threatening to leave the denomination. He said that anyone wanting to change the assembly's ruling would need go through the process of creating an "overture" or resolution, which would then be voted on at the next assembly meeting.
"We don't unmake decisions because hundreds of angry people send e-mails," he said.
With no action on divestment until 2005 at the earliest, it remains unclear what effect it might have on Israel. Huffman told The Journal that he doubts the divestment will actually take place, because it would be difficult to find corporations with "policies clearly designed to hurt the Palestinian people."