In squeaker, Presbyterians reject divestment
Pro-Israel groups say close vote welcome but suggests future tension
Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, at work at the Presbyterians’ General Assembly, says “the resolution failed because Presbyterians were called to their better nature.”
Photo by John Cushman
July 11, 2012
State and national Jewish leaders applauded the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly for voting down a resolution that would have divested their stock holdings in three companies that do business with Israel.
At the same time, the Jewish leaders credited their own grassroots efforts in working to defeat the measure that — if it had passed — could have caused a severe rift between Jews and the church.
The vote against selling church stock in the Motorola, Caterpillar, and Hewlett-Packard Corporations was a narrow one, 333-331, with two abstentions.
Had it gone the other way, “it would not have been business as usual,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “It would have been unprecedented. We would have had to figure out what the breach in the relationship would have meant.”
“We were proud to do our part to alert our local rabbis and engage with local Presbyterian delegates to the conference and share with them our vision for peace,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ, a day after the vote.
John Rosen, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Metro New Jersey Region, also helped coordinate local Jewish outreach to a dozen Presbyterian delegates and other church leaders prior to their convention.
“If it had passed, we would have had to stop and think seriously about what sort of projects we would be involved in with Presbyterians in the future,” he told NJ Jewish News. “It is not that we wouldn’t accept their phone calls, but we would make this a front-and-center item for the future. It would color every discussion we would have with them in the future.”
The Presbyterian Church USA, the largest branch of the denomination, has some two million members and maintains strong ties with Palestinian Christians on the West Bank.
Many Presbyterian leaders oppose Caterpillar for manufacturing bulldozers Israeli authorities use in demolishing Palestinian homes they consider illegal. Israeli security forces also use Motorola surveillance technology and Hewlett-Packard biometric systems.
For several years, Felson has been laboring “close to full time” to prevent mainline Protestant churches from divesting from Israel.
He was backed by the Israel Action Network — a project launched by JCPA and the Jewish Federations of North America — and Jewish community relations committees from across the country. Jewish organizations from across most of the political spectrum, including the left-leaning J Street and Americans for Peace Now, sent representatives to the Presbyterian convention site in Pittsburgh to oppose the resolution. Jewish groups argue that divestment, like boycotts, is a tactic associated with those who oppose the existence of the Jewish state, not just its treatment of the Palestinians.
In a July 6 phone interview from Pittsburgh, Felson told NJJN this year’s battle was especially tough.
“The major institutions of the church pulled out all the stops to pass divestment. It failed because Presbyterians were called to their better nature,” he said. “It was remarkable to see the presence of better angels. They strive to be peacemakers who are committed to both Palestinian Christians and to Israelis and their relations with Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They recognize that peacemakers not only don’t have to choose but need to be agents of reconciliation, not division.”
Like Felson, Gorelick said passage of the divestment resolution would have led to tension with local congregations.
“A lot of our interfaith work is done through our rabbis, and it really would have hurt relationships between the Jewish community and the Presbyterian community,” she said. “But we would have had to take a strong stand, and it could have hurt friendships at the local level.”
She added: “In the future we need to continue a dialogue with the Presbyterians about how to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. In my conversations with them, I learned they do not know the Jewish community’s efforts toward peace, and they are not aware of the U.S. government’s efforts for peace. They just think of Israel as a militaristic force that wants to dominate the Palestinians.”
Noting the narrow margin of victory, Rosen said, “The close vote tells us the next time it may well pass. Our goal at AJC in partnership with the CRCs and others involved is to try to develop more long-term relationships in the Presbyterian community as a way we can express our concern.”
Although the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church have voted down divestment resolutions in recent conventions, the Quakers’ Friends Fiduciary Committee did agree to sell off its Caterpillar stock this year.