A committee of Episcopal leaders on Wednesday announced plans to lobby their church to divest from companies that profit from Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, arguing that Israel has abandoned efforts to forge peace and that Christians have a moral obligation to intercede on behalf of Palestinians.
If the committee succeeds in convincing the church to divest at its general convention in June in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Episcopal Church, one of America’s largest protestant denominations, will join a number of other Christian groups, including Presbyterian Church USA and The United Methodist Church, that have made similar divestments.
The action is part of a growing international movement to pressure Israel through economic tools — including boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Since 2005, when Palestinian civil society first appealed to international groups to employ BDS tactics, the movement has gained ground in universities, unions and religious communities.
The Israeli government has criticized the BDS movement as biased. In a March 2014 speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned. The boycotters should be boycotted."
Newland Smith, a member of the Episcopal committee proposing the divestment measure, said the resolution was meant to resolve an injustice.
“I have no idea what the outcome of this initiative will be,” said Smith, senior deputy to the general convention from the Diocese of Chicago. “But we issued the paper and the press release and the resolution to let the church know our feelings at this juncture in the history.”
Smith, along with three other deputies and a member of the church who has written extensively about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, signed the issue paper and resolution. Together, they make up the Episcopal Committee for Justice in Israel and Palestine.
For the divestment resolution to pass, the church’s Legislative Committee on Social Justice and International Policy must approve its presentation before the general convention, where it must win a majority of votes in both the House of Bishops and House of Deputies.
In their issue paper, the committee noted that the church had previously attempted to engage with companies that profit from the occupation through a campaign that included “letter-writing, face-to-face meetings, and the filing of shareholder resolutions.” However, they were not successful in convincing any company in the church’s investment portfolio to abandon enterprises that profit from the decades-long conflict.
Smith said it's not clear how much of the Episcopal Church's $375 million endowment is invested in such companies. However, passing the resolution will ensure that current investments are pulled and no future ones are made.
“Corporate engagement is not sufficient,” Smith told Al Jazeera. “And as Episcopalians, most of whom are citizens of the United States, we have a certain responsibility to press for a just peace, which we think might well call for the Episcopal Church to divest from specified companies.”
Netanyahu’s recent statement that there would not be a sovereign Palestinian state on his watch encouraged the committee to propose the divestment resolution, Smith said.
The committee slammed Israel in its issue paper for human rights violations and breaches of international law, including its growing settlement project in the West Bank, which remains an obstacle to achieving a lasting peace with Palestinians.
Noting Israel’s deadly assault on the Gaza Strip last summer, the committee wrote that without a viable peace process “civilian deaths and maimings keep accumulating, while the occupation, which is its own form of violence, becomes more entrenched each day.”
“Maintaining the status quo is no longer viable in the absence of the peace process,” the committee added.
Published along with the issue paper was a forward written by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an icon of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, the system of minority rule and racial segregation that came to an end in the 1990s. During the international campaign to abolish Apartheid, activists pushed for divestment, among other tactics.
Palestinians and solidarity activists, including Tutu, have long contended that Israel maintains an apartheid system in the occupied territories. After visiting the West Bank in 1989, Tutu said he saw startling parallels with South Africa’s experience under apartheid.