What Do You Think? "Divestment: Hindrance or Harbinger?"

by Evan L. Hays

The issue of divestment has grown in magnitude since the Presbyterian Church voted in the summer of 2004 to "initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations" whose business "is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli." The plain fact is that much of the debate since the decision has been solely about divestment, and not about the fact that most people seeking peace do agree on: raising continued support for the end to the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

The largest reason for this situation is not that there is something fundamentally wrong with divestment, but rather that many of the negative reactions regarding the actions of the Presbyterian Church – as well as efforts by several other churches who have explored divestment – have either been biased or incomplete.

When the Presbyterian Church met for their General Assembly in the summer of 2004, they did not merely discuss the issue of divestment, nor did they just discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the church members, the issue of divestment was perfectly in line with part of their mission as a church: to uphold justice and peace. Anything regarding Israel or Palestine within the conference was within this framework and by no means should it be seen outside of that. Contrary to many published reports, the church took a complete, carefully formulated, and defensible stand about their involvement in Israel, world affairs, and issues of justice.

The Church's General Assembly met June 26-July 3, 2004 to discuss matters ranging from the budget, Korea, abortion, and divestment. By no means had the church scheduled a special meeting to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and out of roughly 10 issues addressed per day of the assembly (http://www.pcusa.org/ga216/news.htm), only a handful from the whole conference were related to the conflict.

In an attempt to respond to critics, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, defended the church's decisions about Israel and Palestine in a letter (http://www.pcusa.org/pcnews/2004/04329.htm) published on July 20, 2004. In seven points he dismisses claims that the church was being biased or had singled out Israel in their calls for justice.

In response to questions from the Jewish community about efforts by some Presbyterian churches to reach out to Jews, the assembly commissioned a study of Christian-Jewish relations and theological ties between the two groups. In response to certain Christian ideologies, the assembly passed a resolution asserting that theological viewpoints espoused by Christian Zionism are not in concert with Presbyterian theology.  The assembly also called for an end to the construction of the "separation barrier," in conjunction with past resolutions by the church that the occupation should be ended as it is the "principle cause of the conflict."

The section of the letter that mentions divestment is limited and specific. The church authorized one of its boards, "the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee[, to] initiate a process to look into companies investing in Israel and to bring recommendations regarding phasing in selective divestments to the General Assembly Council for action in March 2005." In other words, actually taking investments out of companies involved with injustice done to either Israelis or Palestinians is both an action to take place in the future and is a last resort (http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/nation/20040928-1454-presbyterians-jews.html). Churches such as the Methodists and Presbyterians that have called for divestment have plans first to research the issue, then to speak with the companies, and failing redress, finally to divest.

The last three points in the letter hark back to Presbyterian Church stands on its "longstanding commitment to the secure existence of Israel and the Israeli people," its "larger commitment to human rights and social justice all around the world," and its call for both sides to stop "activities that increase hatred and mutual recrimination and that destroy hope, security, and trust".

The usual representation of the Presbyterian Church's decision by right-wing voices supportive of the Israeli side follows this pattern: "the church took a radical step toward the Palestinian side of the argument without consulting the Israeli side, and in doing so has threated the legitimacy of the state of Israel."  In a letter (http://www.house.gov/apps/list/press/ca28_berman/presbyletter.html) to Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick signed by 14 congressional representatives dated September 13, 2004, the group argued that "rather than contributing to peace, this approach will only provide encouragement for those that seek to de-legitimize the very existence of the Jewish State." This criticism is actually blind to the avowed position of the Presbyterian Church and ignores recent statements made by the church to the contrary.

Furthermore, the church's divestment decision, which called for "phased, selective divestment" of particular companies, is frequently misrepresented as a move to boycott all Israeli businesses or any companies that do business with Israel. An article (http://www.jewishtimes.com/scripts/edition.pl?now=11/10/2004&SubSectionID=31&ID=4313) in the JEWISH TIMES dated November 10, 2004 began in the first sentence by referring to how "the U.S. Presbyterian Church voted to drop its holdings in Israel" – a clear misrepresentation of the actions of the church.

A third common error lies in the failure of critics to mention the Assembly's decisions that uphold the principle of peace and justice for both sides, that renew support for the state of Israel itself, and that condemn the tactics of terror used by certain Palestinian extremist groups.  For example, in a WASHINGTON POST article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58039-2004Sep28.html) dated September 29, 2004, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, was quoted as saying, "holding something over the head of Israel to change its conduct, while holding nothing over the heads of the Palestinians to change their conduct. . . has caused utter dismay in the Jewish community." This is not only an improper representation of the actions of the church, which has continually condemned terrorist actions and will certainly follow this stand as it moves forward with divestment; it also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of peace efforts that seek to bring justice by defending those without power against those who have power.

Along similar lines, groups critical of the Presbyterian Church have effectively slowed the campaign for divestment and its goal to draw attention to the effect of the occupation on the Palestinians, the divestment campaign's ultimate goal.

With the decision of the Anglican Communion on June 24, 2005 to recommend an evaluation of investments held by its member churches, yet another church has joined the divestment movement. The Anglican Church is by far the largest (in terms of worldwide membership) of the churches so far to deal directly with divestment in one of their general council meetings, but the worldwide influence that the church holds is likely to be little deterrent to the members of the pro-Israel news media (such as the ones mentioned above) that will likely continue to spout the same criticism of the divestment campaign.

Along with the expected and typical response of the pro-Israeli lobby both in the United States and worldwide that the resolve is "one-sided," other more drastic reactions are certainly part of the debate.  The Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles sent a letter on the 27 of June, 2005, to Archbishop Rowan Williams of the Anglican Church that referred to the church's recent decision as "not only biased, not only in violation of freedom of commerce provisions of the European Union and the World Trade Organization," but also bitterly commented, "your vote is one more traumatic frame in that never-ending film" of deep-rooted anti-Semitism. Although this letter specifically links divestment with anti-Semitism, perhaps more extremely than many others from the pro-Israeli right wing, it is indeed one of the many that have mistakenly mingled ignorant calls for legal ends to divestment with reactionary libels against the Church for perpetuating the "age-long hatred" of Jews. As Rev. Kirkpatrick has repeatedly pointed out, the church continues to strive for increased communication and ameliorating relations with Jews.

Most recently (the beginning of August 2005), the Presbyterian Church named five specific companies that they will be targeting (http://www.pcusa.org/mrti/actions.htm) as possible companies from which they could divest.  Those companies are Caterpillar, Motorola, ITT Industries, United Technologies, and Citigroup. Each of these companies was deemed by the Presbyterian committee to in some way be furthering suffering and violence in Israel-Palestine.  One year after the initial resolution by the church, the negative reactions from reactionary pro-Israeli news outlets still echo the past sentiments of "functionally anti-Semitic" and so on.

Realistically, important questions may be asked about the "phased, selective divestment campaign" of the Presbyterian Church (and others that have taken similar steps, including the United Methodist Church, the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church of the United States, the United Church of Christ, and the World Council of Churches).  They differ from the questions that are often presented in the pro-Israel news outlets and in the U.S. Congress.

They are:

(1) Will the differing ideas among organizations and institutions about the specifics of divestment action hamstring efforts to bring peace?

(2) How can the church effectively decide which corporations have ties to companies that oppress either the Israeli or Palestinian people, especially inside the Palestinian territories?

(3) As a tool, will divestment have any effect in bringing the conflict to an end?

The world community, which has grown tired of the conflict, would benefit greatly from answers to these questions, and from not having to wade through misguided interpretations of what the Presbyterian Church and other churches have sought to do in a completely proper and transparent manner.

Evan L. Hays is a senior at Wheaton College, studying history and Bible. After spending the spring of 2005 studying in Cairo, Egypt, he interned for the Council for the National Interest, an NGO in Washington, D.C., where he focused on the divestment issue.

(EDITOR'S REMINDER: We've had much healthy dialogue sparked by our recent invitations to readers to respond to specific news and op-ed items in the ePistle. Please note that, in reproducing these items here, we at ESA feel that the themes they discuss are worthy of debate and discussion, but our publication of them should imply neither endorsement nor condemnation of the views expressed therein.)


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