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The Divestment Genie
Ira Rifkin
The Jewish World, September 6, 2004

[This article could be viewed originally at the following link.]

With its recent policy vote to stop investing in firms that deal with Israel, the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) has set a precedent that has Jewish groups alarmed

American Jewish groups normally pay close attention to pro-Palestinian church activists, but this one slipped past them. Meeting in northeastern Florida last winter, regional representatives of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to urge their denomination to stop investing in companies that do business in Israel. But a local confab in Florida is not the same as a large national gathering: In Richmond, Virginia, in early summer, the same denomination's General Assembly backed a toned-down version of the Florida proposal, catching organized Jewry's attention, and propelling divestment to the forefront of the struggle for the moral high ground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By a huge majority, the assembly gave the green light to a process designed to lead to "selective" divestment from companies whose products, in the church's view, help Israel suppress Palestinian aspirations. Alarmed by the implications, American Jewish groups, along with some in Israel, are now scrambling to stop what they fear could become a broad-based effort to make divestment a centerpiece of pro-Palestinian efforts within Protestant churches.

The implications are potentially enormous, despite the steep membership losses suffered in recent decades by mainline churches, a term of reference for those Protestant groups whose establishment in America dates to the republic's earliest days. The PC (USA), for example, has just 2.4 million members, down 1.8 million over the last 20 years. And none of the other leading mainline groups—the Episcopal (as Anglicans are called in the U.S.), Methodist and Lutheran churches—has even half as many congregants as does the 20-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest evangelical denomination and a staunch supporter of Israel.

But mainline church influence today is not about numbers. Its influence remains strong because of its historical role in the building of the United States and the disproportionate number of members it has among America's political and business elite. Even President George W. Bush is a mainline Protestant, thanks to his official membership in the United Methodist Church, and notwithstanding the fact that his conservative theology and social outlook put him at odds with his church's more liberal leadership.

Among those sounding the divestment alarm is Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism. "The word I'm hearing is major denominations are thinking about this in a big way," he says. "My first inclination was that there was no danger of immediate action. But now indications are that something could happen sooner rather than later." Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, the Anti-Defamation League's interfaith affairs director, is even less equivocal: "The Presbyterian Church is probably just the first of many Protestant groups that will jump on the divestment bandwagon."

The Louisville-based Presbyterian Church (USA)—not to be confused with the smaller and considerably more conservative Presbyterian Church in America—is the first American church group to make divestment from Israel a denomination policy. Hoping to get the church to back away from the effort—not to mention keeping it from taking root in other churches, and beyond—Jewish officials are seeking high-level meetings with PC (USA) leaders. They are also urging local Jewish representatives to meet with their Presbyterian counterparts, with whom they may already have working relationships and who may be more sympathetic to Israel's concerns than the national leadership. Freelance pro-Israel activists have also joined the effort. In Boston, a woman named Diana Applebaum created an online petition (http://www.petitiononline.com/presby2-/petition.html) decrying the PC (USA) action that has attracted thousands of signatures as it makes its way around the web's pro-Israel blogs and list servs.

PC (USA) leaders say they are willing to discuss the issue, and insist they have no desire to undermine Israel's economy by instituting a broad divestment policy of the kind initiated in the 1970s and 1980s against firms doing business in South Africa under apartheid. Instead, they say, they are looking only at pulling church investments from specific companies whose products "directly or indirectly" cause "harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli." Caterpillar, Inc., the American manufacturer of the Israeli mili-tary's armored bulldozers, is frequently cited as one firm that could be targeted. PC (USA) national bodies have more than $2.7 million invested in Caterpillar stock. The figure is minuscule in view of Caterpillar's worth of more than $24 billion, but selling the shares would have much larger symbolic impact.

The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, PC (USA)'s "stated clerk," the church's top elected post, stood his ground in a lengthy statement issued in response to Jewish criticism. The church, he says, is committed to Israel's existence "within legitimate and secure borders" and to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, albeit a solution that includes a Palestinian right-of-return "to their homeland." He disavows any suggestion that the church morally equates Israeli policies with apartheid and condemns Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli "noncombatants." But Israel needs to "cease striking terror in the hearts of Palestinians by stopping military operations that assault harmless people and disable Palestinian infrastructures."

Kirkpatrick says his church's desire is to facilitate a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The divestment vote, which passed 431-62, should be viewed not as an attack on Israel but as part of the Presbyterian religious commitment to working for social justice, he adds.

Predictably, Jewish critics have not been calmed. To them, the PC (USA) decision is simply another manifestation of the church's unquestioning support of Palestinian positions, like an October 2000 Kirkpatrick statement blaming the then-newly minted intifada solely on Ariel Sharon's Temple Mount visit and in which he labeled Israeli policies toward Palestinians "a clear form of apartheid." Such statements, the critics argue, are evidence of deep anti-Israel PC (USA) sentiments that they say are shared by pro-Palestinian activists in other mainline churches. All these churches follow a generally progressive, action-oriented social agenda and have long histories of mission work in, and identification with, the Arab Middle East.

Also doing little to mollify Jewish concerns is Kirkpatrick's insistence that, at this point, all PC (USA) is committed to is to explore selective divestment by having a committee report back by March 2005 with recommendations on the issue. "They're committed to do it, period," says Bretton-Granatoor, pointing out that the assembly resolution instructs the committee "to initiate a process of phased divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel [in accordance with church guidelines on socially responsible investing] and to make appropriate recommendations to the General Assembly Council for action."

"They just have to figure out how to do it," says Bretton-Granatoor.

Despite the uniformity of Jewish concern, key mainline Protestant figures deeply involved in Israeli-Palestinian issues express mixed opinions on how widely divestment—a tactic Jewish groups also adopted as part of the international effort to end apartheid—will be embraced by other mainline churches. While all these churches generally share the Presbyterians' belief that Israel must be pressured to withdraw to its 1967 borders if Palestinian attacks are to end and a peace process to succeed, each operates differently and faces a unique set of internal dynamics.

The Rev. James Wall is a consistent critic of Israeli policies, a supporter of divestment, and the senior contributing editor of The Christian Century, North America's most influential pan-denominational mainline magazine. He believes divestment is likely to spread, but not as rapidly as Jewish groups fear. "Presbyterians are sort of a bellweather for the mainline churches. They're a pretty big player and an activist church. Others follow it closely, and aren't much different in their basic positions," he says. "But it took years for South Africa divestment to get going," because of the slowness with which church bureaucracies decide major issues.

(By way of example, it could take as long as four years for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—ELCA—to come up with a divestment strategy, should it decide to do so, says Pat Zerega, the mainline denomination's director for corporate social responsibility.)

Wall also notes that support for Israel's attempts to counter Palestinian attacks is generally high among grass-roots mainline church members, in line with polls showing solid support for Israel among Americans in general in a post-9/11 world. That split between the average churchgoer and activist leaders could slow the divestment process if it threatens to open yet another internal fault line in mainline denominations already rife with talk of schisms over such explosive issues as same-sex marriage, the ordination of openly active homosexuals, and the allocation of declining resources resulting from their massive membership losses in recent decades, he says.

Corinne Whitlatch is the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, a Washington-based coalition of 19 Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox denominational agencies and groups, including PC (USA), which lobbies on behalf of Palestinian claims. She agrees that others will likely follow the Presbyterians' lead. But she says divestment "has never been a policy we in Churches for Middle East Peace have considered. We have never felt the analogy of Israel to South Africa was useful. They are not analogous. [Divestment] is a diversion. If I thought divestment would stop Israel's occupation then I would say it's a useful approach. But I don't think it could really be successful in changing Israeli actions."

The context in which the PC (USA) divestment vote took place adds to the palpable anger among Jewish groups. Over the course of its eight-day meeting in Richmond, the GA also took action on several other resolutions—"overtures" in church parlance -- that, while less troublesome when considered on their own, together are viewed by Jewish critics as a concerted attack on Israel and Judaism itself.

One vote insisted on an end to construction of Israel's "separation barrier," or security fence, citing its negative impact on Palestinians. A second declared Christian Zionism inconsistent with the theology of the Reformed churches (referring to Presbyterians and others that identify closely with the teachings of, in particular, John Calvin). A third vote narrowly rejected an immediate end to national funding for new Messianic Jewish congregations, even as a companion vote authorized a study of whether Messianic Judaism—dismissed by mainstream Judaism as deceptive and a theological oxymoron—violates long-standing PC (USA) policy to only engage in evangelism done, as Kirkpatrick put it, "in a spirit of respect, openness and honesty." Ironically, Avodat Yisrael, the Philadelphia Messianic congregation whose existence prompted this vote, has come out against divestment, saying that "punitive measures such as selected divestment can only serve to weaken the Israeli economy, threatening the well-being of Israelis and Palestinians alike."

The Rev. William H. Harter, a Pennsylvania pastor who heads the PC (USA)affiliated Presbyterians Concerned About Jewish-Christian Relations, which opposes divestment and hopes to short-circuit its implementation from within, calls it a mistake to bundle the votes on Christian Zionism and Messianic Judaism with the votes on the security fence and divestment. The first two, he says, are more than anything reflective of the church's rivalry with conservative evangelical churches that tend to strongly support Israel, and PC (USA)'s internal struggle over the nature of contemporary evangelism and whether Judaism remains a legitimate faith in a post-Jesus context.

But here again, Jewish groups see the issues through a different lens. Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, stresses the importance of Presbyterians' long missionary presence in the Middle East, where they established numerous medical and educational institutions, including the American universities in Beirut and Cairo. Given their historical association with the Arab world, PC (USA) leadership, he says, has "always had trouble with Zionism" and suffers from "latent anti-Zionism embedded in the hierarchy." Supporting Messianic Judaism "is tied to anti-Zionism," as is PC (USA) "frustration" over the growing political influence of American Christian Zionists in U.S. Middle East policy under President George W. Bush, Rudin maintains.

A strongly worded open letter to Kirkpatrick sent by the dovish Israeli organization Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) also links the Messianic Jewish vote with the more overtly Israel-oriented resolutions. "A notable lack of empathy characterizes these resolutions," says the RHR letter. "They give evidence of great difficulty in truly hearing what Jewish voices have to say. The human rights of Jews to respectful, equal treatment should be dear to the hearts of all who call upon the Name of the Creator. In your recent decision on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and in your decision to refrain from suspending [funding of additional Messianic Jewish congregations] you violate those rights."

However, the "deepest flaw" of the "one-sided" resolutions on Israel, RHR adds, "lies in the ramifications of the highly charged language you employ. Particularly insensitive to history and appalling in its potential consequences is the allegation that the Occupation is somehow 'at the root of evil acts committed.' This is a restatement of the paradigmatic allegation that Jewish sins are somehow especially significant, especially 'at the root of evil.'"

Rudin says anyone familiar with the PC (USA) should not be surprised by the church's actions. The concerns of Arabs and other Middle East Christians are, quite simply, far more important to the church than Jewish or Israeli security sensibilities. "Those are their ties. What else would you expect?"

He points out that the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem, was brought to the General Assembly, where he spoke in favor of divestment. "We have to send strong messages to such companies," the church's official news agency reported Raheb as saying, referring to Caterpillar. The Rev. Victor Makari, an Egyptian native who heads the PC (USA) Middle East Office, which coordinates the denomination's work in the region from the church's Kentucky headquarters, was likewise quoted as pushing divestment. (Makari told The Report his preferred solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "a shared democratic state"—a solution he admits is a non-starter because of Israeli concerns that the one-state option is tantamount to demographic suicide.)

Two years ago, adds Rudin, the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, a 60-year-old Israeli Arab-American, served as PC (USA) "moderator," a largely ceremonial but influential post that involves presiding over a GA meeting. Abu-Akel, who currently works for the church in Atlanta, says he remains an Israeli citizen but prefers calling himself Palestinian-American. And last year, the Rev. Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest and founder of Sabeel, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian "ecumenical liberation theology center" that works to publicize Palestinian Christian concerns worldwide, was a PC (USA) scholar in residence.

Makari and Abu-Akel—both of whose opinions on Middle East issues carry great weight in the church, according to various church officials—say they played no direct role in the writing of the original divestment overture submitted to the GA by the St. Augustine presbytery, the Florida group that set the ball rolling last winter. Makari notes that the regional group's proposal was much tougher than the final GA-approved resolution. St. Augustine called for what amounted to a virtual blanket divestment policy. That language was tempered, Makari says in part at his urging, prior to the GA floor vote.

But why St. Augustine? The Rev. Dr. Paul Hooker, St. Augustine's chief executive, rejects the question as beside the point. "These are just folks like other Presbyterians who are concerned about social justice issues and are attentive to the history of the conflict and the situation of Israelis and Palestinians," he says. "It started here, but it could have been anywhere in the church."

Citing different reasons, PC (USA)'s Jewish critics would probably agree.

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