The General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church USA rejected by two votes a proposal to divest from American companies – Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard – to punish them for doing business with Israel. The GA voted to boycott products like Ahava cosmetics because they are “profiting from the occupation.”
Since 2004, the BDS campaign has been driven by the Palestine-Israel Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church USA; this time its head, Katherine Cunningham expressed hope that the divestment vote would pass during the next GA meeting in 2013.
As part of its legal warfare (lawfare) project, IAM has periodically reported on the leading role of Israeli academics in the BDS drive. As a matter of fact, the idea to boycott products from the territories was conceived by Matzpen in February 1988; it was modeled on the successful struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Matzpen sympathizers in the academy took up the call; in March 1988, a group called “The 21st Year” organized by Hannan Hever, from the Hebrew University and Adi Ophir (now at TAU) published a Covenant for the Struggle Against the Occupation; its members declared their refusal “to collaborate with the Occupation and pledged to do either part or all of the following: never enter the occupied territories without an invitation from their Arab inhabitants, not allow their children to be exposed to the racist bias of the school system, boycott institutions and products of companies whose Palestinian employees are denied human dignity and decent working conditions, boycott goods produced by Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, never confuse acts of protest and resistance by Palestinians with acts of terror, refuse any military command ordering them to take part in acts of repression or policing in the occupied territories and protest every act of violence and injustice committed by the Israeli regime in the occupied territories”.
Over the years, Rachel Giora, a professor at Tel Aviv University has become the leading voice in the BDS movement at home and abroad. In 2008 she joined a number of other activist faculty including Anat Matar (TAU) and Kobi Snitz (Weizmann Institute) to create BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestine BDS call from within. These and other pro-boycott faculty such as Neve Gordon (BGU), Ilan Pappe (former Haifa U), Dalit Baum (Haifa U), Merav Amir (Hebrew U) have launched or helped numerous BDS initiatives ranging from the British academics call to boycott Israeli universities to the latest actions of the Presbyterian Church USA. Israeli pro-boycott scholars have been in high demand in the BDS drive. Indeed, the website of the Palestine-Israel Mission Network, Presbyterian Church USA carries Gordon’s endorsement of a book Steadfast Hope, which is used to promote divestment.
The 2011 Knesset law banning Israelis from supporting BDS has not eliminated the problem. As IAM reported, Neve Gordon and Merav Amir contributed to a May 2012 book advocating BDS. Giora and others are still involved with organizations that support BDS.
Still, some issues generated by the near -vote of the Presbyterian GA are clear. First, those who find comfort in the fact that the two million Presbyterian Church is not likely to hurt the value of the stocks of industry giants like Caterpillar are wrong. As the flagship of the mainline Christian denominations in the United States, Presbyterians command a symbolic position that would legitimize future targeted BDS efforts.
Second, those in the Israeli academy who opposed the Knesset BDS law should know that academic freedom comes at a cost and that benefits and costs need to be properly weighted in a debate that, so far, has been long on slogans and short on content.
Presbyterian Church in U.S. rejects divestment of global companies in Israel
Deeply divided General Assembly votes down proposal that sought to divest three major companies that 'profit from Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.'
By Natasha Mozgovaya | Jul.06, 2012 | 5:30 AM |
The largest Presbyterian group in the United States narrowly defeated a proposal to divest from three companies that do business with Israel. After an hours-long debate that took place late Thursday, the Presbyterian General Assembly voted 333-331, with two abstentions, to reject the divestment plan..
The debate was long and nerve-racking, as those attending the debate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania were deeply divided on the matter.
Divestment supporters said the targeted companies - Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Motorola - were profiting from Palestinian suffering. The American Jewish Committee, a public policy group, said the proposal demonizes Israel and threatens Christian-Jewish relations.
In an announcement, one student said the reasoning behind the divestment proposal was not a motion against Israel or the Jews, but rather against investment in "non-peaceful products." "Many of us can't sleep at night knowing our pension money comes from this oppression," he said.
A Palestinian told the assembly that his house "was demolished in 1968 by a CAT bulldozer," adding that "occupation is the worst form of terror."
A Caterpillar employee from Illinois complained that commissioners were only being presented one side of the story. "I've been an employee of Caterpillar for 37 years. You are being shown the very narrow side of CAT. CAT is the first responder around the world," he said, noting the company's work at the Twin Towers after the September 11 attacks. "I am proud to wear this Caterpillar shirt, no matter what happens at this GA."
Another commissioner said she feared the motion was "missing the target." "Different companies in Israel militarize the bulldozers. Caterpillar can't stop building at the West Bank", she said.
There were also those who expressed concern that a vote in favor of divestment would only "alienate our Jewish friends." Matthew Miller from Iowa said, "I believe an unintended consequence of the divestment will alienate our interfaith Jewish partners in this country. Taking one side over another will privilege Palestinian suffering, not Israelis that are terrorized by their neighbors that seek to eliminate them. This course of action will not have its intended effect; it will achieve nothing but alienation." His comment stirred angry responses that the Presbyterian community has been "doing what Rabbis told us to do" for years, and the "number of settlers is over 500,000 today," adding that it would be a shame "to be bullied out" of the divestment and to "ignore the suffering of our Palestinian brothers."
Some harsh words were thrown around the room. "Investment will never relieve our conscience from ethnic cleansing and apartheid," said one debater. "There is plenty of investment in Israel – billions of dollars are invested in illegal colonies, a separation wall. We have had enough with investments that bring hatred."
The Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) expressed its disappointment with the decision, as they did after a similar initiative failed to pass the Methodist Church vote earlier this year.
“It appears that church commissioners were swayed by a fear that divestment would cause irreparable harm to Jewish-Christian relations,” said Rev. Katherine Cunningham, IPMN Vice-Moderator. “In reality, the divestment motion was supported by a broad alliance of Jews, Christians and others who believe that nonviolent means such as divestment are an effective way to pressure the Israeli government into abiding by international law and respecting Palestinian human rights.”
In a subsequent vote of 369-290 the assembly decided to support a minority report that called for a positive course of action with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and proposed to invest in companies that promote peace.
Pro-Palestinian Presbyterians have been trying for years to persuade the denomination to divest. The church, however, has been dissuaded by U.S. Jewish groups and other Christians who argue that withdrawing investments will not contribute to peace in the region.
Pension funds in Norway and Sweden have divested themselves of holdings in some firms involved in building settlements or helping to erect the West Bank separation barrier. European activists have stepped up pressure on companies by exposing their West Bank ties and picketing stores that sell goods produced in Israeli settlements.
While Thursday's vote may have resulted in the General Assembly voting down the divestment, members vowed to reignite the debate next year, saying that if progress is not made between Israel and the Palestinians, the result of the next vote might be very different.