Detroit Free Press
Noam Marans and Kari Alterman
June 21, 2014
In what supporters called a historic vote, Presbyterians voted late Friday 51%-49% to divest from three companies that make products used by Israel.
Presbyterian Church U.S.A., an influential Protestant group meeting in Detroit this week for their biennial assembly, became the largest Christian group in the U.S. to vote at their gathering to divest from companies tied to Israel.
The American Jewish Committee slammed the vote, calling it “a breach with a Jewish community committed to Jewish-Christian relations.”
The vote is “facilitating the delegitimization of Israel in the guise of helping Palestinians,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the Jewish committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. This vote “is celebrated by those who believe they are one step closer to a Jew-free Middle East,” Marans said.
The vote was close, 310-303. Two years ago in Pittsburgh at their last assembly, Presbyterians narrowly rejected divestment by 333-331.
The resolution calls for the largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S. to divest $21 million from three companies —Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions — that produce items divestment supporters say are used by Israel to oppress Palestinians. They said Caterpillar makes bulldozers Israel uses to demolish Palestinian homes, Hewlett-Packard makes technology used to promote biased treatment of Palestinians, and Motorola makes communications and security equipment that hurts Palestinians.
The moderator of the Presbyterian general assembly, Heath Rada, said that the bulldozers that Caterpillar makes for Israel are “not like anything we see in” the U.S. They are designed “to be destructive.”
The vote came after intense lobbying efforts over the past week, with supporters and critics of Israel coming to Detroit to lobby in the halls of Cobo Center up until the vote late Friday. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., spoke to the assembly on Thursday, telling members he extends a personal invitation for Presbyterian leaders to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if they rejected divestment.
The vote comes amid a movement to divest from companies that operate in Israel often called BDS, Boycott, Divest and Sanctions. Last week, the pension board of the largest Methodist denomination in the U.S. divested from a prison company doing business in Israel. Two years ago, the Quakers also divested from some companies tied to Israel after their Ann Arbor chapter complained.
Supporters of Israel say that Friday’s vote unfairly singled out Israel and could harm Jewish-Presbyterian relations.
But Rada and Gradye Parsons, head of the assembly, stressed that this vote was not an endorsement of the BDS movement. Both said the Presbyterians still support Israel and the Palestinians, and are hoping for a two-state solution. The resolution included a section that called for Presbyterians to have good relations with Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and Palestinian Christians.
Rada said the vote was not about an “anti-Jewish issue,” but about some actions of the Israeli government.
“Some of the actions they have taken have caused a lot of concern,” Rada said after the vote to reporters.
He also expressed concern about terrorism that Israelis face.
Parsons said he hopes the divestment can help “end the occupation and move towards a two-state solution.”
“I’m deeply disappointed,” said Kari Alterman, head of the Detroit chapter of the American Jewish Committee. The divestment resolution was “a one-sided judgement against Israel. If truly committed to peace, they would have done everything in their power — including meeting next week with Prime Minister Netanyahu — to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.”
The vote comes as Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is losing members, seeing a membership drop of 37% in 21 years, more than 1 million members.
Date: 6/21/2014 12:00:00 AM