Washington — Heavy-equipment giant Caterpillar opened negotiations with Christian groups that were threatening to divest from the company because of its sales to Israel.
The United Methodist Church has been contemplating a resolution to pull investments from Caterpillar because of the use of the company’s machinery in the West Bank. In a statement from Caterpillar sent to Methodist leaders April 7, the company said it would call on its clients to use their equipment in ways “consistent with human rights and requirements of international humanitarian law.”
Caterpillar also promised to look into engaging in “possible philanthropic activities in Palestinian areas.”
After receiving the statement, The United Methodist Church withdrew a resolution targeting Caterpillar for divestment from the agenda of its quadrennial General Conference, scheduled for an April 23 opening.
Jewish groups fighting against the church’s divestment efforts dismissed Caterpillar’s statement and said it was merely reciting the company’s existing rules regarding use of its equipment.
While the threat to pull out $5 million of The United Methodist Church’s pension funds from Caterpillar stocks is off the table, groups within the church still support the use of divestiture as a means of pressuring Israel to change its policies in the conflict with Palestinians. Several other divestment resolutions, ones that are more general, will be raised in the conference, and if passed they will place the Methodist church alongside the Presbyterian Church (USA) on the front line of the anti-Israel divestment campaign.
Caterpillar has been a leading target for divestment activists in the United States because it supplies the Israel Defense Forces with bulldozers that have been used in the past to demolish Palestinian homes and to raze olive groves. A Caterpillar bulldozer was also involved in the 2003 death of peace activist Rachel Corrie in Gaza.
After presenting a proposed resolution to divest from Caterpillar this past January, the church’s Board of Church and Society contacted the company headquarters in Peoria, Ill., and was invited to a meeting with Caterpillar’s executives, which was followed by another meeting and a promise for more dialogue in the future.
“The most important aspect of this to us was their willingness to meet with us and to acknowledge the concerns we have about the use of their products,” Jim Winkler, top executive of the church and society board, told the Forward. Winkler said his group has not yet set its goals for the next round of talks with Caterpillar but will prepare a report on the issue for the next General Conference, which will take place in four years.
“I still see divestment as a legitimate tool,” Winkler added. “After all, we have also recommended divestment in the Sudan case and heard only praise for that from the Jewish community.”
The United Methodist Church has divested in the past from companies producing nuclear weapons or dealing with tobacco, alcohol, gambling and pornography. Caterpillar also has recently opened discussions with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and with several Roman Catholic religious orders of Dominican Sisters. Both of these groups planned to raise resolutions against selling equipment to Israel at the company’s next shareholders meeting. The resolutions were withdrawn as a result of the talks with Caterpillar executives.
Jim Dugan, chief corporate spokesman for Caterpillar, said that the talks with Methodist representatives were part of a series of discussions on this issue with groups and individuals. According to Dugan, the statement sent to the Methodist church was “in line with previous statements and communications we have had with other groups and individuals relating to this subject.”
Jewish groups that have fought against the Methodist divestment campaign said that the end of the Caterpillar campaign did not ease fears about anti-Israel sentiments in mainstream Christian movements. Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said he does not see Caterpillar as caving in to divestment pressure. “What Caterpillar did is restate existing policy and law,” he said.
Felson will attend, together with other Jewish activists, the Methodist conference in Fort Worth, Texas, in an attempt to convince delegates not to approve the anti-Israel measures. He warned that the conference agenda still contains several resolutions calling for divestment, though they do not target specific companies doing business with Israel.
“Only when divestment is completely off the table will we will be able to say that the Methodist church has heard our call for balance in peacemaking efforts,” Felson said.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.