The Episcopal Church of America voted this week to reject any campaign to divest from Israel, leading many Jewish organizations to claim that they had successfully beaten back the threat of a broad, liberal Protestant boycott.
The executive board of the Episcopal Church unanimously endorsed a report stating that “nothing positive” would come from using divestment as a punitive tool against companies operating in Israel. Instead, the executive council called for “positive investment” in the Palestinian territories.
The Episcopalians originally took up the issue of divestment a year ago, after the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin divesting from companies that aid the Israeli occupation. The Presbyterian vote shocked Jewish leaders, and many in the Christian and Jewish communities thought it would lead to a chain reaction among liberal American Protestant denominations.
Such predictions had Jewish organizations fearing a public-relations disaster, with increasing comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa. The disaster was the target of a divestment campaign in the 1980s.
After the Episcopalian vote, though, Jewish interfaith experts are saying that the tide has turned. The vote caps a few months of close work between Jewish and Protestant leaders, including a joint mission to Israel at the end of September with the most important players in the Christian investment world.
“This signifies that the corner has been turned on divestment,” said Ethan Felson, who is the point man on the issue for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a coalition of 13 national Jewish organizations and 122 local Jewish communities.
However, the larger threat of divestment — both outside the United States and outside the churches — has not disappeared. The World Council of Churches voted in February to commend the Presbyterian divestment campaign. There are also a few cities and universities in the United States that are entertaining proposals to divest from companies operating in Israel. But the mood is a long way from where it was in the summer of last year, after the Presbyterian vote.
In July 2004 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted 431-62 to begin “phased selective divestment in multinational corporations in Israel.” The Presbyterian vote came as a surprise, even within the Presbyterian Church, and it quickly prompted four other major, mainline Protestant denominations to consider similar measures.
“The decision of the Presbyterian Church really caused a number of other denominations to gauge the question of divestment,” said Sister Patricia Wolfe, executive director of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, which brings together 275 religious groups to discuss ethical investing. “They wanted to understand this, rather than finding it up for vote in the middle of an assembly.”
The four other major Protestant denominations — the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church — all put together groups to consider the question of divestment soon after the Presbyterian vote. It was in November 2004 that the Episcopal Church’s Social Responsibility in Investments Committee first began a one-year study of the issue.
Jewish interfaith experts say that at the time they believed that the Presbyterians’ move would only be the first of many divestment resolutions. “I believed this could snowball,” said Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith relations at the Anti-Defamation League.
Since then, however, Jewish groups have engaged Protestant leaders in intensive dialogue, leading to a number of decisions turning away from divestment. The most important was a vote at the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in August. In the assembly’s “Churchwide Strategy of Engagement on Israel and Palestine” the assembly members did not even raise the question of withdrawing investment in Israel. This came after the church’s panel on interfaith relations recommended against divestment.
The United Church of Christ had passed its own resolution on investment in Israel a month earlier. That resolution said the church’s investment bodies should consider “divesting from those companies that refuse to change their practices of gain from the perpetuation of violence, including the Occupation.” This angered some Jewish interfaith leaders, but others said it was better than the Presbyterian resolution because it was a broad measure against violence and did not isolate Israel.
“It’s important that it was part of a continuum,” said Bretton-Granatoor. “The UCC’s resolution was a part of the spectrum on the way to where we are now.”
Even the Presbyterians appear to be adopting a more balanced approach. The church’s mission on ethical investing announced two months ago that it would begin talking with five companies working in Israel, one of which, Citigroup, was accused of being used by Palestinian terrorists to launder money.
Some Jewish interfaith experts said the inclusion of Citigroup marked a move away from a strict isolation of Israel.
The head of Presbyterian interfaith affairs, Jay Rock, said the church would only divest from the five companies after meeting with them and filing shareholder resolutions, a process that would likely take at least a few years, and would have to be approved again by the General Assembly. Rock also said that a number of local congregations would likely propose resolutions at next year’s General Assembly to halt the move toward divestment.
“We know that the church is not of one mind on this,” Rock said.
Jewish and Christian interfaith leaders now blame the fallout over the Presbyterian resolution on the fact that interfaith dialogue between the groups had avoided touching upon Israel for nearly a decade.
“We had wonderful ongoing dialogue for years,” Bretton-Granatoor said, “but we always avoided talking about the things that divided us. We’d been avoiding this assiduously.”
That began to change last year. The American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Churches convened an interfaith group in May 2004 to discuss peace in the Middle East. Darrell Jodock, the chair of the panel on Jewish relations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, said this came too late to influence the Presbyterian Church. No Jewish speaker was asked to give a counterpoint before the Presbyterian vote.
But after that vote, the Jewish leaders aggressively courted their Protestant counterparts. The interfaith group has met 10 times in the last year. In July, representatives from three major Jewish organizations spoke to the Episcopal committee on investing.
The United Methodists are the one Protestant denomination still looking into divestment. They have invited David Elcott, of the American Jewish Committee, to testify this Friday on the issue.
In the United Methodist Church, the Virginia and New England conferences asked the church to vote on divestment at its annual conference next April. But Jewish interfaith leaders said they are confident nothing will come of these proposals.
“I would be very surprised were the Methodists to support resolutions when all the other churches won’t,” Elcott said.
Jodock said dialogue with Jewish organizations had a clear effect on the work of the Lutheran panel that ended up recommending against divestment. In particular, the Jewish contribution made them “look very carefully at how things were worded” and “ask questions about how effective divestment would be as a tool for peace.”
The interfaith talks culminated in the trip to Israel, where the leading players from all the Protestant denominations met with Israelis and Palestinians. Brian Grieve, who represented the Episcopal Church on the delegation, said that his church waited until the trip was over to finish its report. In the end, he added, the report included findings about antisemitic rhetoric in Arab states.
Still, Christian groups have not been entirely won over by the lobbying of Jewish organizations. The American Jewish Congress criticized the Episcopalians for not recognizing Palestinian terrorism as a factor in the continuing conflict. The United Church of Christ attracted even greater ire for its resolution about the Israeli security fence, which called on Israel to “tear down the wall.”
“The dialogue has helped move these churches away from a radical position,” said Eugene Korn, interfaith director at the AJCongress. “I think they’re still biased toward the Palestinians, but they have become more sensitive to the Jewish community.”
This story "As Episcopalians Reject Divestment, Groups See a Threat to Israel Ebbing" was written by Nathaniel Popper.