The push for divestment continues as the Methodist General Conference enters its second week

Palestinian Methodist Missionary and Pastor Alex Awad outside the Tampa convention center where the Methodist divestment vote will take place. (Photo: Anna Baltzer)

At this moment, the United Methodist Church (UMC) is holding its General Conference in Tampa, Florida. About one thousand delegates are considering whether to divest from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation. We are talking about companies with a solid track record of human rights violations: Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard. Caterpillar produces the bulldozers that have been responsible for the demolition of innumerable Palestinian homes and the uprooting of full orchards. Motorola Solutions produces equipment used to maintain surveillance systems around Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and military camps in the West Bank. Hewlett-Packard provides on-going support and maintenance to a biometric ID system installed in Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank which deprive Palestinians of the freedom of movement in their own land and allows the Israeli military occupation to grant or deny special privileges to the civilians under its control.

The UMC holds shares in these three companies valued at $35 million. The church acknowledges that divestment from these companies has no financial implications, meaning that divestment can be achieved without causing any financial loses to the church.

The delegates will cast their vote sometime this week (the exact timing has not been set yet.) To the extent that we will be able to tweet from the convention floor, we will do so under hashtag #churchdivest. The group leading the effort, United Methodist Kairos Response, can be followed at @UMKairosResp. While it is impossible at this moment to predict the result of the vote, we can already start taking stock of what has become clear at the convention this past week. Here are five of them:

NUMBER ONE: Everyone agrees the occupation is wrong and must end.

Whether you are for or against divestment, the consensus in the church is that the Israeli occupation is wrong and must end. In fact, the church has taken a position against Palestinian home demolitions as early as 1988, among dozens of resolutions condemning Israel’s discriminatory policies for more than forty years. The petition to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard does not seek a new policy. Rather, it seeks to align the church’s investments with its long-held resolutions and values. The United Methodist Book of Discipline discourages investment in companies “that directly or indirectly support the violation of human rights.”

NUMBER TWO: Everyone agree that the companies in question have been uncooperative or unresponsive.

The General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of the UMC, Jim Winkler, recently stated:

“As someone who has been involved in the discussions by UM agencies and ecumenical partners with Caterpillar for six years, I would like to share critical issues we have repeatedly raised with the company. Regrettably, in all of these meetings, including one last week, Caterpillar has told us it has no intention to change any of its business practices relating to the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Chief Investment Officer of the church’s General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, David Zellner, testified in committee last week and described efforts to ask CAT to change its behavior as “futile.”

NUMBER THREE: There is disagreement about what to do next.

Zellner opposes divestment. He prefers an alternate approach, namely that the church ask corporations to sign onto a set of principles of ethical business conduct and then consider divestment only for companies that refuse to sign these principles. Since the principles are unenforceable, nothing would stop the companies from signing on the dotted line in order to avoid divestment while doing nothing to change their behavior.

Mr. Winkler supports divestment. He said it best when he said:

“this is first and foremost a moral issue, yet sadly Caterpillar offers only misleading interpretations of the law and irrelevant arguments as a basis for continuing their sales. The question before delegates is whether our church should profit from the sales of equipment which are clearly used in ways that violate human rights.”

NUMBER FOUR: Charity is not a substitute for justice.

Some who oppose divestment within the church talk about the need to invest in the Palestinian economy rather than divesting from companies profiting from the occupation.

While investment is not objectively bad, it cannot overcome the obstacles imposed on the Palestinian economy by the wall, the checkpoints, and the home demolition which damage property and impede the free movement of workers, goods, and services. We have heard this again and again from the Palestinians themselves at the conference, including from Pastor Alex Awad, a United Methodist Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem and crosses the checkpoints daily on his way to Bethlehem Bible College. Speaking to UMC delegates, Awad urged them to stand with Palestinians, to stand for justice, and to recognize that these companies are causing real harm to real people. He spoke eloquently about the need for Palestinians to live with dignity and to be able to provide for themselves, rather than waiting for charity to try to compensate for the unjust system of occupation under which they suffer.

NUMBER FIVE: International delegates get it.

About 40% of the convention delegates come from abroad. There is a large of contingent of delegates from Latin America, Africa, the Philippines, and beyond. The Latin American caucus has endorsed the divestment resolution wholeheartedly. Many African delegates with whom we’ve spoken are in support as well. Some of them have made the connection between the use of Caterpillar bulldozers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they are used in mines to extract minerals from the ground in ways that are harmful to the environment and to the well-being of workers and communities where many of the delegates live. Others come from countries torn by war and violence and they relate to the daily violence that the military occupation imposes on the lives of the Palestinians. Not all of them use the word “occupation,” however. But when we explain what we are talking about, they get it. “Colonialism,” we’ve heard more than once.

Of course, many U.S. delegates get it too. In a few days, we will know where the balance lies. We will then learn whether the United Methodist church has the strength to stand by its values or is prepared to cast them aside in order to avoid controversy.

The church agrees that the occupation is wrong and that the complicit target companies have shown no signs of change. Thus, ultimately, this vote is not about the occupation but about whether to listen to Palestinian voices, the voices of the oppressed, who are calling for divestment. Will delegates assert that they know better than the Palestinians themselves what is needed for Palestinian freedom?

Regardless, the conversations in the corridors, in committee, and on the plenary floor are sure to leave their mark on hundreds of delegates now forced to face their very own financial connections to the oppression of the Palestinian people.

About Anna Baltzer and Sydney Levy

Anna Baltzer is National Organizer at the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and Sydney Levy is Advocacy Director at Jewish Voice for Peace. Both organizations are working as allies of the United Methodist Kairos Response, the grassroots initiative from within the church that is shepherding this historic divestment measure.

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