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Understanding the Presbyterian Vote

Divestment, Corporate Engagement and Israel

by WILL YOUMANS And NORA ERAKAT

America’s largest Presbyterian church voted to continue policies of economic engagement in the Middle East. It affirmed its willingness to use its investment policies to press for peace in Israel-Palestine. The vote came two years after it’s overwhelmingly support of a phased, selective divestment from Israel.

During its 217th General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to substitute the language of “divestment” for the precise concept of “corporate engagement.” Both concepts refer to the same process of moral responsible investment. They just refer to different stages. Corporate engagement is when the Church researches the companies, determines their compliance with its standards, and then pressures them to change. Divestment refers to the ultimate termination of investments from the targeted corporations if engagement fails to produce positive change.

Nothing in the amended resolution prevents the PC(USA) General Assembly from deciding to decide to divest. Rev. Gretchen Graf, moderator of the General Assembly said “this new statement clarifies the engagement process, which has not yet led to any recommendation for divestment,” she told the General Assembly. She specified that divestment could still occur in 2008.

The substitution of divestment language for more procedural terms comes after two years of steady pressure from pro-Israeli lobby groups and a relative absence of support from pro-Palestinian groups outside of the church. The new resolution addresses tensions with the pro-Israeli Jewish community. Many argued divestment is anti-Semitic and harms Jewish-Christian relations.

The previous assembly’s language called for “phased, selective divestment from corporations that profit from the illegal occupation of Palestine.” The new resolution does not actually contradict this. The language is merely softer.

However, a barrage of headlines and sound-bites suggest the Presbyterians have abandoned divestment totally. Pro-Israeli activists claim this is a victory for them and a defeat for the divestment movement – mainstream media are readily accepting this as fact.

Manya Brachear’s story in the Chicago Tribune is titled, “Presbyterians won’t divest over firms’ ties to Israel” (6/22/06). Peter Smith wrote that “The Presbyterian Church (USA) yesterday rescinded its controversial policy of considering divestment” in the article, “Presbyterians shift investment focus off Israel.” That was in the Louisville Courier-Journal (6/22/06). Charles A. Radin’s piece, “Presbyterians reverse stance on Israeli divestment” ran in the Boston Globe.

“Presbyterians end a previous policy that had singled out Israel,” by Richard Ostling, was featured in the Houston Chronicle.

Since 2004, the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has engaged five multinational corporations as part of the process — Caterpillar Inc., Citigroup, ITT Industries, Motorola and United Technologies. During a press conference following the vote, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, said the Assembly’s action does not overturn the actions of the 216th General Assembly (2004), indicating that the MRTI’s mission will continue.

Rev. Graf said the MRTI committee could still recommend “divestment only as a last resort.” Given that the target companies are unlikely to start caring about the Palestinians, the last resort is probably not too far away.

The 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has a long history of presence in Palestine and the Levant. Many within its own ranks witnessed first-hand the oppressive nature of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

Palestinian Presbyterians and Christians played a role in defending the Church’s 2004 vote. Pro-Peace Jewish and interfaith groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace, the American Friends Service Committee, Tikkun, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA), became active on this in just the past few months. The New York City-based Jews Against the Occupation wrote in a letter to the PCUSA that divestment was “an important step forward for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine.”

This support paled in comparison to the backlash from pro-Israel groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. At one point, the Chicago City Council was going to deny the Church a building permit based on its divestment call. Churches were inundated with letters and phone calls against it. Pro-Israeli activists set up meetings and events, and helped prop up a Presbyterian anti-divestment group.

Now, they consider the removal of the term “divestment” a victory. “We are thrilled,” said David Elcott, director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. He said the compromise was “courageous. … This is a win-win situation not only for Jews and Christians. Even more, it is a victory for Israelis and Palestinians and those committed to end the suffering.”

Rabbi Jonathan Miller said “I am grateful to all people who stuck with us to make right this mistake.”

Their statements are pure spin on the outcome of the General Assembly’s amended resolution. The impact of the resolution, to explore divestment as a form of non-violent resistance to Israel’s Occupation of Palestinian Territories remains fully intact. They conflict with the statements made by top PCUSA officials at the press conference.

Casey Currie, a member of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA) did not think the simple change of language was the stunning victory Israel’s apologists claim it is. The PCUSA reaffirmed its commitment to morally responsible investing and engaging corporations that profit from oppression. As Currie said, “if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

There is no basis for claiming the Presbyterians surrendered their right to divest from companies profiting off of Israel’s military occupation. This vote did not let Israel and the companies helping it off the hook. Yet, the media have largely adapted the twisted version of events. It seems they all wish divestment would just go away.

Noura Erakat is a legal and grassroots organizer with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. She can be reached at legal@endtheoccupation.org.

Will Youmans is the Washington, DC-based writer for the Arab-American News. He blogs at www.kabobfest.com.