Hours after it narrowly rejected divestment from some companies that do business with Israel, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to endorse a boycott of products made in the occupied West Bank.
The church’s general assembly also cleared the way for a vote in 2014 to establish an Israel occupation-free “conscience plan” for participants in its pension plan.
The split decision amounted to a confusing and chaotic end to a showdown over corporate involvement in Israel by the 2 million-strong denmination.
On Thursday night, the group voted by a razor-thin 333-331 margin to reject a call to divest church fnds from companies that provide supplies and equipment to Israel, including Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola. That vote basically rejected the proposal of a church committee, which had recommended divestment to the full body.
The rejection looked to most observers like a defeat for the boycott Israel movement, which just last week celebrated a victory when a financial ratings group downgraded Caterpillar from its socially responsible index.
“It’s clearly a milestone when yet again, an American church rejects divestment,” said Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “The better angels prevailed.”
Proponents of divestment said the close vote was a sign that they are close to winning the divisive fight.
The issue is not going away,” said Sydney Levy, Advocacy Director for Jewish Voice for Peace, some of whose members testified in Presbyterian committee meetings.
It didn’t take long for the view of boycott proponents to be vindicated.
By a 457-180 margin, delegates voted to support boycotts of Ahava beauty products and dates from the Hadiklaim Israel Date Growers because they come from Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
The motion was amended to be less sweeping than originally proposed, and includes a provision to end the boycott if “significant progress” toward Palestinian rights and independence is made.
A separate vote overwhelmingly approved a “positive investment” efforts to fund schools and other institutions that promote peace between Israel and Palestine.
It was a significant victory for boycott Israel proponents, especially when coupled with the step toward establishing new pension options for those who want to express their opposition to the Israeli occupation.
“Overwhelmingly, the general assembly is in favor of allowing people to express their conscience,” Levy said.
The Presbyterian Church, the country’s largest Presbyterian denomination representing some two million members in the United States, follows other American Protestant churches that have rejected divestment, including the United Methodist Church this past May and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 2007 and 2011. The Friends Fiduciary Committee, responsible for investments of 250 Quaker meetings nationwide, did divest from Caterpillar this year.
No matter their position, all parties involved see a protracted battle on the issue.
“We’re not naive,” said Bill Borror, senior minister at Media Presbyterian Church in Media, Pa. “Rather than talk, this is a way to get our hands dirty and put our bodies on the line.”
This story "Presbyterians Split on Israel Boycott" was written by Blair Thornburgh.