(Go to JAT-Action Home Page or Presbyterian Section)
[This article could be viewed originally at the following link. For a rebuttal see the commentary by Barbara Wheeler.]
Churches have been practicing corporate divestment for a long time—long before the recent decision by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to consider divestment from certain companies doing business in Israel. The practice began with churches' refusal to invest in companies whose profits derive from products like tobacco and alcohol or from activities like gambling.
In attempting to manage its assets in a way consistent with its theology, the PCUSA has questioned investments in companies whose activities are harmful to workers, environmentally destructive or linked to the violation of human rights. On those grounds, the church has challenged corporate activity in such places as Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, China, Indonesia and Sudan.
The PCUSA's longstanding commitment to peacemaking has also led the church's General Assembly to limit or eliminate church investments in companies that are heavily involved in producing military weapons.
In 1985, at the height of the apartheid crisis in South Africa, the church adopted a process for challenging particular U.S. corporations that did business in that country. The aim was to change their behavior so that their presence would no longer undergird the apartheid economy but would be a force for political change in both South Africa and the U.S.
That process involved some deliberate steps, including: establishing criteria for determining corporate involvement; identifying the most important companies to engage; arranging meetings with management; exercising shareholder resolutions to give visibility to the church's concerns; and finally, if none of these prior steps bore fruit, recommending that a particular corporation be placed on the General Assembly's divestment/proscription list.
The church's goal in enacting this policy was not divestment in itself; nor was it to maintain some kind of purity. The aim was to alter corporate behavior.
In 2004 the General Assembly, responding to a proposal from the Presbytery of St. Augustine in Florida, voted to begin the process of phased selective divestment from corporations active in Israel, following the style of engagement approved by the General Assembly in 1985. In adopting the same approach applied to South Africa, the General Assembly made no comparison of the situation in apartheid South Africa with the situation in Israel/Palestine.
The divestment decision was adopted as the last of seven recommendations, most of which reiterated previous General Assembly policies. The assembly:
The recommendation on divestment also cited these realities "on the ground":
The church recognizes that suicide bombers have taken numerous innocent Israeli lives—acts that the General Assembly has deplored as unconscionable. There are periodic acts of violence on the part of some Palestinians against innocent victims. Palestinians have often been poorly served by leaders who have been guilty of serious corruption and of violence against some of their own population.
The divestment recommendation in no way ignores the responsibility of Palestinians to work toward a peaceful future. It does express the conviction that until the Israeli occupation and other aspects of Israeli encroachment and domination are ended, that peaceful future will remain in jeopardy.
Following the action of the General Assembly approving a process for engaging corporations doing business in Israel, the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) developed criteria for identifying corporations whose activities need scrutiny. The focus is on:
These criteria will be used to develop the initial list of companies to consider, out of which a relatively small number will be identified for further engagement. Decisions about which companies should be on the "focus list" will require judgments by the MRTI Committee as to the relative magnitude and strategic importance of individual companies.
Some critics immediately complained that the General Assembly was not taking a "balanced" approach to the conflict. But there is no "balance" in the current situation in Israel/Palestine, nor can there be "balance" under current conditions. This is not a contest of power between two more or less evenly matched opponents. The call for balance is ludicrous when one party has overwhelming military, political and economic power and is buttressed by the preferential policies of the most powerful nation in the world. The call for balance brings to mind the comment by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in responding to calls for balance in consideration of the white Christians in South Africa: "When the elephant is standing on the mouse's tail, the mouse will not be impressed with your 'neutrality.'"
Some critics asked why the church would single out Israel for such scrutiny. The simplest answer is that Israel is the place of greatest concern to the Presbytery of St. Augustine, it brought that concern before the General Assembly, and the assembly acted upon it.
Another obvious reason is the unique awe and respect in which the Holy Land is held by adherents of the three great Abrahamic faiths. The turmoil, violence and injustice there leave unique scars on Jews, Christians and Muslims. For that violence to occur especially in Jerusalem, the City of Peace, makes work for peace all the more pressing.
Finally, there is no place on earth where U.S. citizens are more complicit. It is our tax dollars that enable the occupation, the expansion of the settlements and the construction of the Separation Barrier. It is our regular affirmation of shared democratic values that is put to the lie by the injustices visited daily on Palestinians, including those who are Israeli citizens. It is the silence of U.S. Christians and Jews, often leaders in other struggles for civil and human rights, that allows the longstanding bias in U.S. policies to be ignored. It is the conspiracy of silence in the U.S. media that keeps millions of Americans ignorant of the realities of daily life in Palestine/Israel.
The divestment decision by the 2004 General Assembly is not about the Jewish people. It is not about the right of the state of Israel to a secure existence. It is not about ignoring unconscionable acts of violence against innocent Israelis. It is not about getting rid of our holdings in "bad" corporations. It is not intended to exclude appropriate investment in the region. It is not offered as a stand-alone strategy for achieving a peaceful resolution of conflict.
Divestment is a specific strategy to address specific, persistent behaviors of an occupying power against a weaker population. It is about getting the attention of enough people in the U.S. and in Israel on the issues so that these behaviors will change. These are behaviors that violate international human rights law, Israeli law and moral law, not to mention basic tenets of the Torah. They are behaviors that in and of themselves are barriers to peace.
We know that many of our Jewish friends are upset by this action. God forbid that the price of friendship and dialogue should be silence in the face of gross injustice by the government of Israel. God forbid that our Jewish friends, who are people of conscience, should be silenced by the demand that their Jewishness should prevent them from criticizing egregious policies and actions of the state of Israel. And God forbid that Christians in the U.S. should remain passive in the face of bias in the policies of our own government.
It is time for us to join forces—Christian, Jewish, Muslim—to demand of our leaders a secure and lasting peace in the region. The people of Israel/Palestine must have it; peace in the region and the world requires it; and our God commands it. If we could manage that, the discussion of divestment would be irrelevant. Thank God for those who already have shown the courage to begin.
(Go to JAT-Action Home Page or Presbyterian Section)