A group of Presbyterian activists is ramping up efforts to reverse their church’s policy advocating divestment from Israel, setting the stage for a showdown over the issue at next week’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
When the more than 500 national delegates convene June 15-22 in Birmingham, Ala., for the 217th General Assembly, they will be presented with a trove of proposals — known as “overtures” — calling on the church to rescind its current divestment policy. That policy, enacted two years ago at the last General Assembly, called on the church to begin “phased selective divestment in multinational corporations in Israel.”
A firestorm of debate has raged within the church’s 173 presbyteries — regional governing bodies that submit overtures to the General Assembly — since the divestment measure first passed in July 2004. The initial vote came as a surprise to many within the church itself and shocked Jewish communal leaders, who feared that it would prompt other mainline Protestant churches to follow suit. But Jewish leaders’ concerns were allayed the following year, when the Episcopal Church of America rejected a similar divestment proposal.
A total of 29 overtures on the subject of peace in the Middle East have been submitted in advance of this year’s Presbyterian General Assembly. Thirteen of the resolutions call for the boycott to be rescinded wholesale, and a handful call to affirm the existing policy; others occupy a middle ground.
“We would like to see a complete rejection of the negative policy of divestment and replace that with a policy of engagement with both Israelis and Palestinians who truly are looking for peace,” said Gary Green, a Presbyterian Church elder who sits on the board of directors of the Committee To End Divestment Now, a grass-roots group of pastors and elders that was formed in 2005 to reverse the divestment policy.
The hefty number of anti-divestment overtures follows two years of work by Jewish communal leaders and Christian activists, including Green, who have sought to educate the church laity about the issue. Their efforts culminated in late May, when the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, a multi-denominational organization dedicated to fostering support for Israel in the North American Christian community, sponsored a fact-finding trip to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank for a group of 11 Presbyterian leaders.
On returning from the trip, which included meetings with a broad range of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Presbyterian participants issued a statement calling for the church to rescind its divestment policy.
Some Jewish communal leaders contend that the Presbyterian Church has been biased historically toward the Palestinian view. “The only narrative people are exposed to is the Palestinian narrative,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Cooper accompanied the Presbyterians on their fact-finding trip.
“The difference next week, win, lose or draw, is that for the first time within the church, you have a group of leaders who went on their own to the Holy Land, took a look and spent time with rabbis and church leaders,” Cooper said.
Victor Makari, a church official involved with Middle East issues, countered that allegations of pro-Palestinian bias have no basis in fact. “Indeed, all of our official statements begin by affirming Israel’s right to exist within secure and legitimate borders, and we have had many statements calling for cessation of violence on both sides,” Makari said.
Since the passage of the divestment policy, interfaith relations between Jews and Presbyterians have become increasingly strained. A reversal in policy, some observers said, could help mend the fractured relationship, and send a clear signal to the Jewish community that the lay membership of the Presbyterian Church opposes the notion of divestment.
But Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly, where the divestment policy passed, said that the controversy may have benefitted interfaith relations. In response to the initial divestment vote, according to Ufford-Chase, dialogue groups involving Jews and Presbyterians have sprung up in at least 50 American cities. “In that way, it has certainly deepened our conversations with our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
Ufford-Chase noted that the original policy called for engagement with corporations, with divestment as a last resort. The earliest that any recommendations would be made to actually sell stock is 2008, he said. Thus far, the church committee charged with investigating the issue has held talks with Citigroup, Motorola and ITT Industries — and, in fact, the talks with Citigroup centered on reports that the multinational bank had transferred funds to an Arab bank from American charities that were discovered to be funneling money to Palestinian terrorist organizations.
The fracas within the Presbyterian Church mirrors a larger debate being played out in Europe and North America, as two major labor unions — one in Britain and one in Canada — recently voted to recommend a boycott of Israeli academics and divestment from Israel, respectively.
Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Congress, who was among the handful of Jewish leaders who went on the recent trip sponsored by the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, said that it is “no accident” that these boycott and divestment issues are coming to the fore. “I view it as a larger attempt to demonize and ultimately delegitimize Israel,” Korn said.