Church Group Considers Israel Divestment

After Caterpillar Win, Boycott Groups Look to Presbyterians

CAT Fight: The boycott Israel has won a victory over Caterpillar, which has provided bulldozers used by the Israeli military. Now it is pushing a Presbyterian group for a tougher stand.
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CAT Fight: The boycott Israel has won a victory over Caterpillar, which has provided bulldozers used by the Israeli military. Now it is pushing a Presbyterian group for a tougher stand.

By Nathan Guttman

Published July 02, 2012, issue of July 06, 2012.
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Other denominations have, so far, not responded positively to BDS motions. The Methodist Church recently rejected a divestment resolution, as did the Episcopal Church. BDS supporters believe that the opening provided by the Caterpillar downgrading gives them momentum to break through some of this resistance after years of futile efforts.

“The way things are going are to our direction, not away from us,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of the pro-BDS group Jewish Voice for Peace.

In fact, the relationship between TIAA-CREF’s purging of Caterpillar and the Israel controversy was less direct than the BDS proponents portrayed it. It was only on June 21, in a press release, that a coalition group led by JVP belatedly trumpeted TIAA-CREF’s divestment of Caterpillar in its social responsibility funds as a BDS triumph. Until then, no one seemed to notice the action taken last March. But after it was issued, everyone involved felt pressured to respond.

TIAA-CREF disavowed any motive on its part involving Israel. The assets management company explained that it simply relied on MSCI as its vendor for providing “social screens” for these funds.

It was after TIAA-CREF’s statement that MSCI issued its own.

“The key factors determining the rating include a January 2012 labor dispute and subsequent plant closing in Canada, an ongoing controversy associated with use of the company’s equipment in the occupied Palestinian territories, management of environmental issues, and employee safety,” MSCI stated.

In annual reports to Congress, the U.S. State Department has repeatedly criticized Israel’s demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank and in East Jerusalem over many years. The demolitions have often been implemented with Caterpillar bulldozers and other heavy equipment, leading to the divestment protests against Caterpillar. The company’s bulldozers go to the Israeli army and are sometimes financed via sales deals through a special Pentagon program.

According to a report in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, the army retrofits its version of the Caterpillar D9 bulldozer with a heavy machine gun and a bulletproof cabin, among other military modifications.

Israel has defended the demolitions implemented with the bulldozers as actions taken within the context of Israeli law. Many demolished homes, particularly in East Jerusalem, lack proper building permits, though the State Department reports that Israeli laws and procedures make such permits difficult for Palestinians to obtain. Homes of suicide bombers have also been demolished, although that practice has been suspended in recent years. The army sometimes demolishes homes after declaring the land on which they sit to be part of a live-fire zone.

Calls to divest from certain companies dealing with Israel, specifically those supplying goods to the Israeli army or doing business with West Bank settlements, date back a decade. The 2003 death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was run over by a Caterpillar-made bulldozer as she was protesting a house demolition carried out by the Israel Defense Forces, focused much of the divestment efforts on the Peoria, Ill.- based heavy machinery manufacturer. The verdict in a civil lawsuit filed by the Corrie family against the State of Israel is expected to be announced on August 28.

Still, Jewish activists believe that just as in the past, calls for divestment now will not resonate with most Americans. Stern, of the AJC, said that Jewish crowds he speaks with are always surprised to hear that despite the vocal campaign, there have yet to be any universities or pension boards to join the boycott or divest from Israel.

“People understand that singling out Israel is no different than singling out anyone else,” he said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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