David Guralnick / Detroit News / AP

Presbyterians vote to divest in protest over Israeli occupation

Church opts to sell stock in firms it says supply Israel with equipment used in Palestinian territory

By a narrow margin, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) voted Friday to divest from three firms that it says supply Israel with goods and services used in the occupation of Palestinian territory.

The General Assembly approved the policy by a margin of 310 to 303. The policy-making body represents the views of PCUSA, which, with 1.7 million members, is the largest denomination of the country's more than 2.5 million Presbyterians. 

Supporters of the decision to sell stock in Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar said continuation to invest money in the three companies would run counter to the principles of the church, one of the oldest and largest Christian denominations in the U.S.  Those against the move had argued that negotiation was a better route, and warned that an endorsement of the broader boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) protest may strain the church’s historical relationship with Jewish groups.

The three firms targeted in the move were picked due to the use of their products by Israeli authorities. Hewlett Packard makes eye and face scanning devices used at Israeli checkpoints, Motorola provides communications infrastructure; and Caterpillar constructs bulldozers that have been used by Israeli authorities to destroy Palestinian homes.

"After a decade of corporate engagement … these companies have failed to modify their behavior and continue to profit from Israeli human rights abuses and non-peaceful pursuits," Rev. Dr. Walt Davis, a member of Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) and a professor emeritus at San Francisco Theological Seminary, said. “This is a historic vote and the culmination of a long and deliberate internal process within the church."

In a statement, Motorola Solutions said it follows the law and its own policies on human rights. Hewlett-Packard said its checkpoints for Palestinians were developed to expedite passage "in a secure environment, enabling people to get to their place of work or to carry out their business in a faster and safer way."

Meanwhile Caterpillar has said it does not sell equipment to Israel, just to the U.S. government.

Friday’s ballot came two years after a similar move failed at the church’s General Assembly by a similarly small margin.

It also comes a week after the United Methodist Board sold its stock in G4S, a security company that provides equipment to Israeli prisons, according to Israeli daily Haaretz.

Rev Dr Jeffrey DeYoe, chair of the IPMN said the divestment decision could be reversed if the companies stopped cooperating with occupation authorities.

“We cannot reinvest until these companies are not profiting from non-peaceful activities,” he said.

A Presbyterian pastor who leads a congregation in Ft. Meyers, Florida, DeYoe said that the divestment accounts for around $20 million of the Presbyterian Church’s billion-dollar endowment.

News of the vote brought an angry reaction from some Jewish groups in the U.S.

The Anti-Defamation League slammed the move as out of touch with churchgoers’ views and poisonous to the Church’s relationship with the Jewish community.

“Over the past ten years, PC(USA) leaders have fomented an atmosphere of open hostility to Israel within the church, promoted a one-sided presentation of the complex realities of the Middle East, and permitted the presentation of a grossly distorted image of the views of the Jewish community,” Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a press release late Friday night.

But Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-occupation group that advocated for the disinvestment, welcomed the news.

 “This vote not only represents the divesting from the occupation but also the investment in the Palestinian people and an ongoing commitment to reconciliation,” Ilise Cohen, Atlanta leader of Jewish Voice for Peace said, adding: “We are proud of the work at the Presbyterian Church and grateful to have been alongside them in this process.”

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