Feeling Heat, Episcopal Church Backs Away From Divestment

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published November 12, 2004, issue of November 12, 2004.
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The Episcopal Church is backing away from threats to divest from Israel, following a series of intense talks with Jewish community leaders in recent weeks.

Instead, church leaders said they intend to pursue a Middle East investment policy that takes into consideration “obstacles to peace” on both the Palestinian and Israeli side, according to a church statement obtained by the Forward. The memo, from the church’s executive council to its Social Responsibility in Investments Committee, states that “the emphasis of this process is not likely to be divestment from companies whose actions are morally questionable, but rather engagement with them.”

The Episcopalian decision to eschew sanctions contrasts sharply with the policy being pursued by the Presbyterian Church (USA), which last summer voted to begin a process to divest selectively from companies doing business with companies that aid in Israel’s “oppression” of the Palestinians. The Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly approved the divestment plan four months ago, without consulting any Jewish organizations.

Outraged Jewish communal leaders had warned that the move could trigger a domino effect among other mainline Protestant churches. Then, in September, these fears appeared to be validated when leaders of the Anglican Peace and Justice Network, a group within the Anglican Communion, the worldwide church body that includes Episcopalians, raised the issue during a visit to the Palestinian territories. Network leaders announced that they would recommend a divestment policy be adopted at the church’s annual international conference in June. At the time, Brian J. Grieves, director of the Episcopal Church’s Peace and Justice Ministries, said he believed that divestment could be a way to move toward ending the Middle East conflict.

But then Jewish organizations reached out to Episcopalian leaders. This week, Grieves told the Forward that the church would focus on “shareholder activism” instead of on divestment.

“Shareholder activism is more typical of Church investors than divestment, and, I think, likely to be more fruitful,” he wrote in an e-mail. “There’s no dialogue or likely change if you divest. Once you sell the stock, you have no leverage. I don’t know whether divestment might ever be recommended, but shareholder action is the area we are exploring.”

The Episcopal Church claims about 2.2 million members and was ranked as the 15th largest Christian church in America, according to statistics from 1999.

The Episcopalian memo promising no immediate move on divestment took note of Jewish concerns, explicitly stating that the church will keep Jews and other Christians informed of any new developments on the issue. Church leaders echoed this theme.

“No action will be taken without conversation with our Jewish partners at home and abroad,” said Bishop Catherine S. Roskam, chair of the church’s New York council and its International Concerns Committee, in an interview with the Episcopal News Service.

The church’s current plan calls for a yearlong study of companies that “contribute to the infrastructure of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and of companies that have connections to organizations responsible for violence against Israel.”

“The question being asked is this: Is our church profiting in some way financially at the expense of suffering of the Palestinian people or innocent Israeli citizens?” Grieves wrote in his e-mail to the Forward. “As a church, we support the State of Israel. Our goal is not to end the State of Israel. Our goal is to create a Palestinian state.”

Jewish leaders this week applauded the church’s “more balanced” policy statement.

“The memo clearly reflects a much more nuanced view of using financial resources to effect change in the Middle East,” said Mark Pelavin, deputy director of the Religious Action Center, an arm of the Union for Reform Judaism.

“They listened, they heard us; dialogue is worth it,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League.

Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that while he would prefer the church’s socially responsible investing policy be universally applied rather than singling out one country, the church’s policy “reflects a significant move towards balance.”

“It shows we’ve done a lot of homework in terms of listening to each other,” Felson said. But he cautioned that “the Jewish community needs to be very much on its toes… because there is a fairly coordinated strategy of trying to use economic sanctions — often couched in apartheid language — as a line of attack against Israel.”

Bretton-Granatoor noted that the Episcopal memo contains several new statements criticizing Palestinian terrorism against Israel that were absent from previous church documents criticizing Israeli actions. For example, the investment committee said it would investigate steps involving “companies that contribute to the infrastructure of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” but also “companies that have connections to organizations responsible for violence against Israel.”

And while continuing to denounce Israel’s actions, including the building of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and the building of a separation wall on Palestinian land, the Episcopalian document added: “Similarly, attacks against Israel and Israelis by groups inside and outside of Palestine are both morally repugnant and a major stumbling block to any sort of peaceful resolution.”

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