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The Pendulum Swings & A New Era Has Begun: Presbyterian Church (USA) Endorses Boycott, Splits on Divestment
There is a moment, just before a pendulum changes direction, when it is perfectly still. It is precisely that moment that marks the end of an old way and the beginning of a new one. That is what happened for divestment at the 2012 Presbyterian Church USA (PC(USA)) General Assembly in Pittsburgh.
At the General Assembly, a coalition of groups rallied to support the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) in its efforts to pass a recommendation from the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard due to the companies’ profiting from the Israeli occupation. The IPMN also sought to pass an overture to boycott settlement products Ahava Dead Sea Mineral Skincare and Hadiklaim Israel Date Growers in addition to other pro-justice overtures.
The week began with a historic victory in the Middle East and Peacemaking Issues Committee considering divestment and boycott. The committee voted overwhelmingly—by a more than three to one margin—to recommend both measures to the General Assembly. The deliberations lasted more than ten hours and included a sincere and often times difficult discussion about what it meant to them to stand with the oppressed, to withstand accusatory bullying, and to vote according to their conscience.
When it came to the boycott overture, the committee decided that boycotting Ahava and Hadiklaim simply was not enough to address the abhorrent nature of occupation. Instead, it amended the resolution to boycott “all Israeli products coming from the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” and calling on “all nations to prohibit the import of products made by enterprises in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.” The amended boycott overture passed in plenary by a huge margin, seventy-one percent. In doing so, the PC(USA) joins the United Methodist Church in endorsing a boycott of all Israeli settlement products. This is a major victory. According to Jeff Deyoe, Advocacy Chair of IPMN, as recent as two years ago, the word “boycott” could not even be uttered in the Church.
The boycott victory was bittersweet. While the Church supported boycott, its vote on divestment proved more difficult. The vote to substitute divestment from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard with investment came out split 50-50, 333 to 331 to be exact. The divestment option failed by one vote, as the investment substitution needed a majority to pass, and thus it would have been defeated by a tie. One woman subsequently approached the microphone to say she had accidentally voted against divestment and wanted a recount, but by then it was too late.
To describe it as a close vote is an understatement, as indicated by a breakdown of the overall votes. The majority of the 221 advisory delegates, who advise the commissioners but do not have an official vote, voted against the substitution. They included the Young Adult Advisory Delegates, who represent the future leadership of the Church. Virtually all Church leadership and advocacy groups supported divestment including the General Assembly Mission Council, the Advocacy Committee on Racial and Ethnic Concerns, and key members of the Board of Pensions demonstrating institutional support within the Church for divestment. In other words, the voting commissioners may have been split, but the Church, overall, supports divestment.
Following the failed divestment vote, a commissioner, unknown to the IPMN, stood up to propose a resolution that the General Assembly “direct the Board of Pensions to create a program for relief of conscience for plan members who are troubled by the choice to continue holding Board of Pensions assets in Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard.” The resolution quickly passed. The Stated Clerk subsequently ruled it “out of order” because it had not gone through the proper channels for consideration. Nonetheless, the initial passage of the resolution illustrates that the commissioners support, in principle, the existence of a mechanism to protest the occupation regime. They also recognize that CAT, Moto, and HP represent a potential crisis of conscience in this situation.
More Victories, Recalling the United Methodist General Conference
The historic events in Pittsburgh came on the heels of similar resolutions and significant results at the United Methodist Church (UMC) General Conference in Tampa, Florida, two months prior, where delegates voted for a resolution to urge the U.S. government to “end all military aid to the region”; “ensure that tax-exempt funds do not support illegal settlements and other violations of international law,” in reference to organizations like the Jewish National Fund; boycott settlement products; condemn all products “made by Israeli companies operating in occupied Palestinian territories”; and urge United Methodists to read the Kairos Palestine document, an ecumenical document calling on world churches to end complicity with Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies and calling for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS).
While the United Methodist resolution for divestment from the same three companies lost by a wider margin of two to one, it shared many victories with the Presbyterian resolution.
- Many historically oppressed peoples made the connections between their oppression and that of Palestinians. In Tampa, the Native American International Caucus; the World Justice committee on Asian-American Ministries, the World Justice Inter-Ethnic Coordinating Committee, anti-prison advocates, the Congolese delegates fighting exploitation of their resources, Filipino delegates recalling Spanish colonization, and labor rights advocates watching Caterpillar workers strike for their rights made connections to the Palestinian struggle for freedom thereby placing it in a broader context of global struggle against racism and colonialism.
- Presbyterians and United Methodists who lost the vote were outraged by the fear tactics used by the opposition. Rather than paralyze them, those scare tactics have radicalized new supporters to join divestment efforts and inspired existing supporters to increase their resolve.
- Many members of anti-occupation groups like Americans for Peace Now were outraged that their representative organizations opposed boycotts and divestment and may be inclined to join less hypocritical organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace.
- The discourse has shifted. The occupation is no longer defensible. For example, in Pittsburgh, the argument was not a moral one but a technical one regarding turf of the Board of Pensions. Anti-divestment advocates did not argue that investment in the three companies was justified; they argued that it was not the place of the General Convention to make decisions that belong to the Board of Pensions.
Notably, there existed near unanimity that Israel’s actions are violent and immoral. The discourse has shifted entirely away from discussion on Israel’s “security” measures as a justification for the ongoing occupation. Instead, nearly all parishioners discussed what can, and must, be done to end Israeli oppression even if they did not support divestment as the means by which to accomplish that goal. Anti-divestment forces, however, are part of a shrinking minority as their language urging for peace without meaningful action and accountability has become less and less compelling.
Charity is No Substitute for Justice Withheld
Unable to defend the occupation, anti-divestment advocates’ main tactic in both Pittsburgh and Tampa was to argue that divestment is negative and, instead, the Church should do something positive, like investing in the Palestinian economy. It is this argument that ultimately succeeded in garnering enough votes to take divestment off the table.
Through the 2005 call for BDS and the 2009 Kairos Palestine document, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, including Christians of all denominations, have called on the international community to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel.
At its core, the discussion at both denominations’ plenaries highlighted an inability to defer to communities resisting domination. Should the Church listen to the voices of the oppressed (calling for divestment), or decide for themselves what is best for Palestinians (i.e. investment). The abuse of the word “solidarity” by those who attempted to eclipse Palestinian voices and call for investment rather than divestment is a patronizing insult to all oppressed people who have suffered too long. In the words of Palestinian businessman Sam Bahour, “we Palestinians don’t want a more beautiful prison to live in. We want the prison walls to come down, and that won’t happen unless pressure is placed on Israel to end the occupation.”
Co-founder of the BDS movement Omar Barghouti echoed his words: “We don’t need charity; we need solidarity. We have a fertile land; we have a skilled labor force. We’re an educated population. Just end your role in our oppression, and we can take care of ourselves.”
The claim that divestment is negative is also ludicrous. At the most basic level, the Churches have failed at implementing its most fundamental code to “do no harm” as it continues to profit from the suffering of the Palestinian people. There is nothing neutral about investing in occupation. To stop profiting from human rights abuses, to divest, is not negative; it is positive.
Moreover, investment in the Palestinian economy is futile without an end to the occupation. No amount of investment can save the village of Susya. The entire village, including solar panels in which the Germans have invested thousands, awaits destruction for the sixth time. No amount of investment can help the Palestinian women forced to give birth at checkpoints or the prisoners tortured and held in administrative detention without charge or trial. No Palestinian economy can endure without access to land, water, goods, or labor. Checkpoints using HP bio-scanners prevent workers from reaching work or transporting products. Settlements surrounded by Motorola cameras make it impossible for Palestinians to reach their land and resources. Anything the Churches build can be destroyed in a flash with Caterpillar bulldozers. Church investments can never substitute the harm being done by investing in these three companies.
In the words of St. Augustine, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
The Broader Context
While the Presbyterian General Assembly failed to heed the calls of the Palestinian people themselves, the last year has seen a flood of monumental victories for the movement to end U.S. corporate support for the occupation. The most significant strides have been captured by the steady demotion of, and divestment from, Caterpillar stock. For nearly ten years, Caterpillar has been the focus of the U.S. pro-Palestine movement’s flagship corporate accountability campaign. The company epitomizes U.S. corporate profiteering from Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies.
In June, Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) removed Caterpillar from its list of socially responsible companies, citing Israel’s human rights violations as a “key factor.” The act likely prompted divestment of millions by the firm’s hundreds of clients whose updated portfolios have not yet been published. In one confirmed example, MSCI client and retirement fund giant TIAA-CREF divested $72 million of Caterpillar stock from their Social Choice Funds. The Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation divested $900,000 of Caterpillar stock. The New York, Northern Illinois, and West Ohio UMC Annual Conferences divested from companies involved in the Israeli occupation, and the California Pacific Conference has voted to do so as well. Many more Annual Conferences are expected to follow suit.
These victories and the votes by the UMC and the PC(USA) have garnered the attention of world, including U.S. mainstream media, showing that the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions can no longer be easily ignored. Opposition to Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies and support for boycott, divestment, and sanctions have entered the highest levels of mainstream institutions.
It is clear that those defending Israel’s actions and opposing divestment are fighting a losing battle. Having reached equilibrium, 50-50, in Pittsburgh, the pendulum is beginning to reverse and will continue to gather momentum as it swings towards justice. In the legacy of churches taking a lead on social justice struggles, such as the Civil Rights movement, there is no doubt that the PC(USA), the UMC, and many more denominations will divest. The only question is when, not whether, they will divest. When they do, the church will continue its legacy and mark a crucial step in the movement to end U.S. institutional support for Israeli oppression and ensure freedom, equality, and justice for the Palestinian people, at long last.
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