In ‘turning-point’ vote, Presbyterians divest from occupation-linked corporations

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Image of jumbo screen at Presbyterian assembly, by Jordan Tarwater
Image of jumbo screen at Presbyterian assembly, by Jordan Tarwater

Nearly 30 years after it divested from corporations complicit in South African apartheid, the Presbyterian Church voted 310-303 to divest from three corporations involved with the Israeli military and its occupation.  The vote means that $21 million of Presbyterian stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions will be divested.

The extraordinarily close vote (51% to 49% of delegates) came after an intense hours-long debate that featured emotional pleas on all sides.

“It hurts me to know that we invest in the tearing apart of Palestinian lives,” said Emma Warman, a youth delegate, before the vote took place.  The advisory voters, including the youth delegates, overwhelmingly recommended a positive vote for divestment.

This close vote came two years after another close vote that went in the opposite direction.  In 2012, the Presbyterian Church rejected divestment by just two votes.

“After a decade of corporate engagement with Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions, these companies have failed to modify their behavior and continue to profit from Israeli human rights abuses and non-peaceful pursuits,” said Rev. Dr. Walt Davis in a statement released by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a Presbyterian group that supported divestment.  “This is a historic vote and the culmination of a long and deliberate internal process within the church.”

The vote followed and preceded many anguished statements from church members who said they feared alienating Jewish groups with the vote. Heath Rada, the leader of the general assembly, rushed to assure the Jewish community that the vote was “in no way a reflection of a lack of love for our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

The American Jewish Committee was not assuaged. In a tweet, it called the votea setback for Israeli-Palestinian peace & a breach w/ Jewish community.”

But many supporters of the divestment resolution cited Jewish support for it. Jewish Voice for Peace had lobbied hard for the divestment resolution, and it released a celebratory statement immediately after the vote:

Jewish Voice for Peace congratulates and celebrates the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s vote to divest $21 million from Hewlett-Packard, Motorola Solutions, and Caterpillar – three companies whose profits from the ongoing Israeli occupation have been extensively documented.

The Church has a long history of ethical investment choices, and it is a strong signal of its commitment to universal human rights that it chose to divest.

This is a turning point. The Presbyterians’ decision is a major development in the longstanding work to bring the US into alignment with the rest of the world.

This decision will have real consequences, sending a message to Palestinians that the ongoing violations of their human rights is worthy of action on the global stage, and to companies and the Israeli government that the occupation is both morally and economically untenable.

Original post:

The Presbyterian Church’s general assembly in Detroit deliberated all afternoon on resolutions on the Israel/Palestine conflict. The main motion, to divest from three corporations that serve the Israeli occupation–Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Systems — went before the body after dinner tonight at 7:30. You can follow the historic discussion on the live-stream, above.

Debate has been spirited and wide-ranging. A motion to replace the divestment resolution with a resolution that called on the head of the Presbyterian church to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu next week in Jerusalem, at the behest of Reform Jewish leader Rick Jacobs, was defeated by 54 to 46 percent, in a possible signal of the outcome on the main vote tonight.

Pro-divestment voices have been very strong. Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, the head of the committee on responsible investment in the church, said that the church had undertaken divestment on earlier occasions, notably from many companies doing business in apartheid South Africa, beginning in 1985, and from a company implicated in Sudanese human rights abuses.

Somplatsky-Jarman also said that the three companies have all refused to engage in productive dialogue on the concerns of the church’s ethical investment committee that they are promoting violence. By contrast, Citi Group sat down with the Presbyterians to address its concern that bank funds might be going to suicide bombers.

Dries Coetzee, a church commissioner originally from South Africa, thanked the church for having liberated Afrikaaners like himself from their role in apartheid, through the divestment action in 1985. He called on the church to do the same for Israelis.

Heath Rada, the moderator of the assembly, closed the afternoon session with a hymn calling on the commissioners to the assembly to find peace in their hearts. It would seem that the church’s leaders are opposed to the divestment measure, despite many changes to it assuring Israelis that the church is committed to a two-state solution that preserves the country’s Jewish character.

Tonight’s debate promises to be serious, earnest, and even thrilling. Tune in.

Here’s a comment from the active discussion on the Presbyterian site:

I too visited Jerusalem and the West Bank recently, on a Joint Advocacy Initiative (JAI) run jointly by the YWCA & YMCA in Jerusalem and Bethleham. I thought I knew a lot about Palestine and Israel but was horrified by the prison like locking in of Bethleham by 7 prominent illegal Jewish settlements on the hills around and immediately visible from the centre of Bethleham, and the concrete wall carving the town in two and cutting off Palestinian rights of thousands of years to visit Ravhels tomb. Having also seen Palestinians subject to pass laws within the West Bank, and heard the JAI and Jerusalem YMCA speakers on why they have become convinced Israel is operating an Apartheid state, I have been convinced that the Two State Solution is no solution.

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Where is the conference taking place??.

Is the 3 O clock time East Coast??.

I am GMT so want to be sure I do not miss it.

“… categorically divest from fossil fuel companies to witness that we care for all of God’s creation” (from the Ustream broadcast of the Presbyterian GA ). Why divest from fossil fuel companies? That’s what radical environmental terrorists want. Does the GA support terrorism? And why are you singling out fossil… Read more »

Wow, this lady is giving a thorough description of the situation, the inability of Caterpillar, HP, and others to not stop hurting the situation, and a long list of transgressions by Israel. She mentions that nothing has changed for the Palestinians these last 10 years. Good job. Hope this goes… Read more »

This is the third Presbyterian vote I remember. The bots have done NOTHING to improve the situation on the ground since the first vote. They think they can take the piss out of decent Christian groups and continue their persecution of the Palestinians with the old anti-Semitism slur waiting for… Read more »

re the speaker from Oklahoma, “Will divestment come at the cost of our relationship. . . .A rabbi in my town asked me if PCUSA is against Judaism” (or words to that effect). This tactic and concern is appropriate for junior high school girls, but it is the wrong question… Read more »