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by Cary McMullen
Religion Editor, The Ledger, Lakeland, Florida
Published Saturday, August 7, 2004
The intersection of Middle East politics, religion and Wall Street is one that few would attempt to navigate. Disregarding the hazards, and to the dismay of some Jewish groups, a major American denomination has begun what may be an unprecedented economic campaign against Israel, aimed at loosening its grip on the Palestinian territories.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at its June meeting in Richmond, Va., authorized the church's staff to divest some of its nearly $8 billion holdings of companies that do business in Israel, a move reminiscent of efforts against South Africa's apartheid policy 25 years ago.
Jewish groups reacted furiously, and Jewish leaders are concerned that the Presbyterian action could open the door to other organizations following suit.
The Presbyterian assembly voted 431 to 62 "to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in mulinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance to General Assembly policy on social investing." An executive committee of the church, the General Assembly Council, could begin divestment as early as March.
Although divestment has been discussed as a strategy against Israel by religious and secular groups, especially on college campuses, the Presbyterians are apparently the first Christian church to take this step.
Corinne Whitlach, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, a coalition of 19 Protestant and Orthodox denominations plus the Catholic Church, said none of the other members of her organization had moved toward divestment.
Relations between liberal Protestant churches and Jews have been strained since 1967.
The main point of division has been over Israel's complete or partial occupation of Palestinian lands and its military and civil policies toward Palestinians, including those in Christian churches that have existed there since the days of the New Testament. American Protestants have argued that Israel's actions have been unjust, and Jews have responded that the policies are necessary to protect Israeli citizens.
The Rev. Victor Makari, coordinator of Middle Eastern and European affairs for the Presbyterian Church, said last week that the General Assembly's action was a matter of addressing a worsening situation.
"We as a church have spoken for many years protesting the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the state of Israel and all the actions that are unjust, such as the building of settlements, the destruction of Palestinian homes, the diverting of water," said Makari from his office in Louisville, Ky.
"The occupation has gotten worse rather than being lifted. A different strategy was needed in order to communicate our seriousness about the situation."
But the vote, along with assembly actions opposing the controversial security barrier being constructed by Israel and continuing Presbyterian support for establishment of Messianic Jewish congregations, sent a shock wave through the Jewish community.
In a statement, the B'nai B'rith said the measures "neither accept the right of Jews to practice their own religion . . . nor the political rights of Jews . . ." and called for an end to interfaith dialogue.
The Anti-Defamation League didn't go that far, but called the assembly actions "offensive and distressing." The ADL's director of interfaith affairs, Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, said recently that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for the plight of its people.
"The sorry state of Palestine is not the fault of Israel. To blame Israelis for the situation of Palestinians is myopic," he said.
The divestment measure was part of a lengthy resolution that expressed admiration for "the tenacity of hope of our Palestinian Christian partners in the face of ominous, cumulative gloom and foreboding;" called for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands; and described attacks on innocent people, "whether carried out by Palestinian `suicide bombers' or by the Israeli military," as "abhorrent and inexcusable by all measures."
The resolution was originally proposed by the Presbytery of St. Augustine, based in Jacksonville, one of 173 districts in the Presbyterian Church.
The original proposal grew out of relationships that churches and individuals had established with Palestinian Christians during mission trips to the Middle East, said the Rev. Paul Hooker, the presbytery's executive. Those experiences caused concern for the hardships that ordinary Palestinians must endure, he said.
It is unclear what impact divestment might have, either on company or foreign policies. The Presbyterian Church has pension funds and a foundation that total more than $7 billion.
"We know that policy statements are rarely listened to in the halls of government. What seems to get their attention are matters of dollars," Hooker said.
According to an Aug. 2 story by the Presbyterian News Service, the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee, which monitors corporations in which the church has invested, is looking at companies involved in three Israeli government activities: the construction of a security barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territory, construction of settlements in the West Bank, and military operations that destroy Palestinian homes and property. Another possible target is banks making loans for those activities.
The standard procedure for the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee is to negotiate with companies to try to change their policies before proceeding with divestment.
A company that is sometimes singled out for divestment is Caterpillar, the heavy machinery manufacturer. According to news reports, armored bulldozers built by Caterpillar are used in Israeli Army sweeps against Palestinian militants, resulting in the destruction of Palestinian homes and orchards.
The Presbyterian Church has more than $2.7 million in Caterpillar stock, according to a Presbyterian News Service report. In the 1980s, the church helped persuade Caterpillar to stop modifying trucks for use by the South African military, the report said.
One local delegate to the General Assembly said he did not recall the resolution since it was one of many, but Charles Miller, a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Lakeland, said in reading later reports about the resolution that he didn't favor its intent.
"My personal opinion is that trying to tell people what to do about foreign policy is kind of futile. I don't think the church has enough influence in the economic community to make a difference. It makes people feel good but doesn't accomplish anything. We'd be better off to steer clear of controversial things that bring down criticism on us," he said.
Like most religious organizations, the Presbyterian Church has long tailored its investments to fit its moral principles. For example, the church does not invest in companies that sell tobacco products or pornography, said spokeswoman Ann Gillies.
But the use of the term "divestment" echoes an economic crusade undertaken by religious and secular organizations in the 1970s and 1980s against the apartheid policies of South Africa, a comparison that was hotly disputed by Jewish leaders.
In a letter to the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the chief administrative officer of the Presbyterian Church, Bretton-Granatoor and Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, wrote, "To assert that there is a moral equivalency between the racist policy of apartheid and the efforts to protect the citizenry of Israel is unconscionable."
In a subsequent statement, Kirkpatrick said that the assembly "has not asserted any moral equivalency" between Israel and South Africa. "The focus of this action is to explore use of a proven tool of economic pressure to motivate real change in Israeli policies and movement toward peace."
Kirkpatrick's clarification did not satisfy ADL leaders, who questioned why Israel was singled out for punishment.
Makari, the Presbyterian official, said the resolution specifies if there are companies doing business in Palestine that are found to cause harm to innocent Israelis, they too will be divested, but he said it's unlikely many will be found.
"There is no parity between the state of Israel and the political structure of the Palestinian people. There is no balance of power, no balance of sovereignty, no balance of economic viability. One would be hard-pressed to find multinational corporations doing business in Palestine," he said.
The Presbyterian action has raised the question whether criticism or sanctions against Israeli policies constitute anti-Semitism. Dr. Jonathan Reich, a Lakeland physician and pro-Israel activist, said in a written statement that historically economic sanctions have been a hallmark of antiSemitism.
"When Hitler came to power one of the first things he did in 1933 was pass the Nuremberg Laws that began the process of economically strangling the Jews. We see divestment campaigns that solely target Jews as nothing more than modern day Nuremberg Laws," he wrote.
Markari, Kirkpatrick and other Presbyterian officials have vigorously denied the charges of antiSemitism, pointing out the church's stance in favor of Israel's existence and security and its condemnations of acts of violence against Jews, including attacks by Palestinian extremists. Makari said a distinction must be made between anti-Semitism directed at Jews and the policies of the Israeli government.
"Israel has wanted to be treated differently and that raises some questions. We have spoken against human-rights violations in Burma and Sudan, and why should Israel be different?" he said.
By being the first American denomination to risk the disapproval of influential Jewish organizations, the Presbyterian Church may have opened the door for others to follow suit, a prospect that worries Bretton-Granatoor. He said the Episcopal and United Methodist churches could be the next to call for divestment.
"My fear is this is just the beginning. It gives license to other religious organizations to do the same," he said.
Cary McMullen can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 863-802-7509.
The original article could be found at the following link.
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