Presbyterians to divest as protest against Israel

File: Congregation members attend a Sunday service at the First Presbyterian Church on October 28, 2012 in Warren, Ohio.
File: Congregation members attend a Sunday service at the First Presbyterian Church on October 28, 2012 in Warren, Ohio.
John Moore/Getty Images

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Friday became the most prominent religious group in the United States to endorse divestment as a protest against Israeli policies toward Palestinians, voting to sell church stock in three companies whose products Israel uses in the occupied territories.

The church's General Assembly voted by a razor-thin margin of just seven votes to sell the church's stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. The final tally was 310-303, or 51 percent in favor and 49 percent against. Two years ago, the General Assembly rejected a similar divestment proposal by two votes.

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The decision by the denomination's top policymaking body is expected to reverberate well beyond the church. It comes amid discouragement over failed peace talks that have left activists desperate for some way to affect change, and as the broader movement known as BDS — or boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel — has gained some momentum in the U.S., Israel's closest and most important ally.

Presbyterians who advocated for divestment insisted their action was not linked to the broader BDS movement, a global network of activists with varying goals ranging from boycotting Israeli companies and institutions to targeting Israel's settlement enterprise in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israeli officials, along with many American Jewish groups and their supporters, have denounced the campaign as an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Frank Allen of the Central Florida Presbytery, who led an effort to strike down the divestment proposal, argued "divestment is not a good tool for peacemaking," and would alienatePresbyterians from the Jewish community.

"God's beloved children are on all sides of this conflict," Allen said. "Divestment will not end the conflict and bring peace. Divestment will create dissension. Dialogue and relationship building will lay the ground work for true peace."

Bill Ward, of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest, based in Spokane, Washington, argued the proposal was not an attack on Israel. The measure reaffirms Israel's right to exist. "It is motivated by stewardship integrity, not partisan political advocacy. It is not anti-Israel nor is it pro-Palestinian beyond the matter of human rights. It is decidedly not anti-Semitic," Ward said.

At least two smaller U.S. religious groups have already divested in protest of Israeli policies. In 2012, Friends Fiduciary Corp., which manages assets for U.S. Quakers, sold its holdings in three companies that sold products to the Israeli military. A year later, the Mennonite Central Committee voted unanimously to divest in response to requests from "partners in Palestine and Israel."

Last week, the pension board of the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant group in the U.S., revealed plans to sell its holdings worth about $110,000 in G4S, which provides security equipment and has contracts with Israel's prison system. However, the United Methodist Church had rejected churchwide divestment, as have the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Motorola Solutions said in a statement that the company follows the law and its own policies that address human rights. Hewlett-Packard released a statement saying "respecting human rights is a core value at HP" and that 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." Caterpillar has said it does not sell equipment to Israel, just to the U.S. government.

The value of the Presbyterian holdings in the three companies is estimated at $21 million, according to a church spokeswoman.

This story has been updated.