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[This article was posted on September 24, 2004, and could be viewed originally at the following link.]
LOUISVILLE -- Not wanting to say too much, but maybe not comfortable with keeping silent either, members of the General Assembly Council are struggling with what to do about the most incendiary issue the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) faces: the intensely controversial vote of the General Assembly a few months ago to begin a process of selective, phased divestment in some companies doing business in Israel.
Church officials now say that no divestiture can take place before 2006, when the next General Assembly meets. There have been questions raised about whether the Presbyterian Foundation or the Board of Pensions are willing to consider divestiture or will feel compelled to act to protect the financial interests of those whose money is invested in their portfolios.
Trying to calm the waters, key PC(USA) leaders have scheduled two meetings with top-level Jewish leaders, one in New York on Sept. 28 and one in October.
But the council, meeting this week in Louisville, is trying to determine whether to have denominational leaders issue some kind of "clarifying statement" about the divestiture action, perhaps one that would be sent to all Presbyterian congregations, acknowledging the anger this action has provoked among many Jews, aware that e-mails and letters and phone calls have been pouring in by the hundreds, and that some Presbyterian congregations are feeling the heat close to home.
"This is far more volatile right now than the ordination issue," said Bill Saul, a council member from California who travels the country trying to raise money for the denomination's major fundraising campaign, Mission Initiative: Joining Hearts and Hands. Saul told the council's Worldwide Ministries Division Committee on Sept. 23 that he recently visited a large, affluent Presbyterian church in a community that's more than half Jewish, where the pastor said "almost every family in the church has a son-in-law or a brother-in-law, a daughter, somebody with very close ties to the Jewish community. They're having real, real difficulty. There are people within the church who want to cut off all funds to the General Assembly."
Saul said some people are upset that the PC(USA) seems to be singling out Israel -- and they won't be calmed by explanations about the Presbyterians' layered, step-by-step process for making divestiture decisions. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)'s stated clerk, said earlier this week that he'd received a letter from 15 U.S. members of Congress trying to convince the denomination to change its position.
Susan Andrews, a pastor from Bethesda, Md. who's a former General Assembly moderator, and whose congregation has shared space with a Jewish congregation for nearly 40 years, said she's heard from Jewish leaders "who are just stunned and feel betrayed and feel let down and distanced by the Presbyterian church. It's not a rational issue" for some of them, Andrews said. "It's so emotional, it's as if we had voted for the extinction of the Jewish people in America. And these are normally very rational people."
But the PC(USA) has been so even-handed in talking about peace and justice in the Middle East, Andrews said -- condemning violence by both Palestinians and Israelis -- that "this comes across as not even-handed."
At the same time, however, as vitriolic as some of the criticism has been, many of the e-mails and calls and letters have been supportive of the General Assembly action, which was taken to try to influence the Israeli government to be more supportive of human rights for the Palestinian people. Laurie Griffith, a lawyer with the Office of the General Assembly, said that about two-thirds of the comments have been supportive, including many from Jews.
And as difficult and divisive as these last few months have been, some say it's possible the heat of this controversy will force Jews and Presbyterians, who've long engaged in interfaith discussions but whose relationship now is anything but cozy, to talk about some of the toughest issues of all.
Regarding Israel and Palestine, "our policy has been pretty consistent and pretty balanced," said Robina Winbush, the PC(USA)'s associated stated clerk for ecumenical relations. "We firmly support the right of Israel to exist as a state, we also firmly support the right of Palestinians to live in a sense of security and a sense of land as well. To be honest, we have not found ways to have healthy conversations with our Jewish counterparts on that issue."
Although the Jewish community is "viscerally upset" by the assembly's action, "I think it's an opportunity for us to understand how vulnerable and how much pain Jewish people feel when Israel comes under attack" and a chance "for very significant dialogue with the Jewish community" about the Israeli peace process and policy towards the Palestinians, said Jay Rock, coordinator of the PC(USA)'s Interfaith Relations Office. "These issues often have not been allowed on the table. It's painful right now . . . But we can see this as an opportunity to engage Jewish people on these issues and to delve into this area that has been off-limits for a long time.'
Other Christian denominations apparently are considering divestiture actions of their own. Victor Makari, the PC(USA)'s regional liaison for the Middle East and Europe, said the Anglicans are considering divestment, and that he recently heard from the United Churches of Christ that "they are seriously discussing a proposal that will come before the General Synod."
Makari said PC(USA) doesn't want to hurt the Israeli economy -- as Kirkpatrick put it Sept.22, "we're not interested in divestment. We're interested finally in justice and peace in the Middle East."
If a company is involved in Israel and is "making chocolates or medicine or toys for children," things that contribute to the well being of people, then "we will invest in it gladly," Makari said.
But companies involved in supporting the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank could be considered for divestment, Makari said. The example most frequently cited is Caterpillar Inc., a company in which the denomination holds stock and which makes bulldozers the Israeli army has used to demolish Palestinian homes, farms and orchards.
The PC(USA)'s Mission Responsibility Through Investment approach to socially-conscious investing dates back to 1971 in what was then the northern branch of American Presbyterianism, Paul Masquelier Jr., the council's vice-chair, told the committee. The idea is that "when we own stock, we have to take responsibility for what the company is doing," Masquelier said. So the PC(USA) does not invest in liquor companies, tobacco companies or those profiting from war.
In this case, the assembly in June approved "a process of phased, selective divestment in multi-national corporations doing business in Israel." That means, Griffith said, that the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee -- which meets next in November -- will begin to develop criteria for what companies to consider; will attempt to discuss the issue with firms that meet those criteria; will perhaps file shareholders' resolutions; and only if those approaches fail will recommend divesture. The MRTI committee is to report to the General Assembly Council in March.
Some criticize the General Assembly action for singling out only Israel for possible divestiture, Makari said, and some council members suggested that perhaps the denomination should say something about divesting in companies doing business with Palestinians as well.
But "there is no American multi-national corporation that is doing business or that is investing with or is profiting from the Palestinian economy, which is in a shambles," Makari said. "If the Palestinians had an economy, they would not be where they are now in terms of social conditions."
Makari told the committee "it may be a false hope that we can repair the hurt that is experienced by offering to put on a different kind of Band-aid. The issue that is before us is a 57-year-old occupation that has devastated a people .... We want to see that these people are out of the bondage of occupation."
Will Browne, the PC(USA)'s associate director for ecumenical partnership, perhaps put things most plainly. Browne said he was out of the country when the reaction to the divestiture action first broke, and he was surprised that Presbyterians were so surprised by what has happened.
"I would have thought we knew what we were doing," Browne told the committee "We were saying to a very powerful country that what you are doing is immoral." Building the security wall on the West Bank isn't moral, "blowing up buses full of civilians is not moral. We say both of those things ... I'd think we would say, `Wow! Something we did at General Assembly actually made a difference and got people's attention."
And Browne said he has "every confidence" that today's difficulties will lead to painful but necessary conversations between Jews and Presbyterians about the treatment of Palestinians.
"We've got to address the issues," he said. "And we want people to challenge us. We're complicit in a lot of evil around the world."
The Worldwide Ministries Division Committee is expected to decide Sept. 24 whether to recommend to the full council that a letter involving divestiture be sent to all Presbyterian churches, perhaps to be signed by Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)'s stated clerk; by Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly; and by Nancy Kahaian, chair of the council. In preliminary discussions, some committee members thought it was essential and perhaps morally necessary for the council to say something about divestiture, others thought it would be tricky to come up with the right words and important for the council not to seem as if it were second-guessing or contradicting the assembly. The council's National Ministries Division committee also is expected to talk about divestiture. And the full council will meet in plenary Sept. 25.
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