DETROIT — In a landmark measure that has been fraying Jewish-Presbyterian relations, the legislative body of the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination voted Friday to shed investments in three American corporations linked to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
By a 310-303 margin, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted on the measure after about three hours of debate.
The denomination has roughly $21 million in assets in the three corporations — a minuscule fraction of their total market capitalization — so the measure is largely symbolic.
The measure affirmed Israel’s right to exist and explicitly distanced it from a broader campaign to target Israel itself with economic boycotts, sanctions, and divestments, advocates say it still stigmatizes Israel and unfairly blames it for the Middle East standoff.
The vote marks the first time the legislative body of any national Protestant denomination — several of which have considered but rejected such actions — chose to target the occupation with economic pressure.
The Presbyterian assembly voted to shed its shares in Caterpillar, which provides heavy equipment used by Israel to demolish Palestinians’ homes and build roads for illegal settlements on occupied land; and Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard, both of which provide high-technology products and services used by Israeli settlers and security forces.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which represents a broad spectrum of Jewish advocacy groups, said the vote would “undoubtedly have a devastating impact” on the church’s relations with mainstream Jewish groups.
“We hold the leadership of the PCUSA accountable for squandering countless opportunities, not only to act responsibly to advance prospects for Middle East peace, but also to isolate and repudiate the radical, prejudiced voices in their denomination,” he said.
That alluded to the publication earlier this year of a study guide called “Zionism Unsettled” by a Presbyterian committee, a sweeping challenge to the fundamental legitimacy of Zionism. While not a statement of the full church, that study guide stoked tensions ahead of the divestment vote.
A group of more than 1,700 rabbis and other religious leaders had written a letter before the vote decrying the report and divestment, warning that the longstanding Presbyterian-Jewish relationship was “headed in the wrong direction.”
Heath Rada, moderator for the General Assembly, said after the vote that the narrow margin indicated how difficult the decision was.
He wanted to let “our Jewish brothers and sisters know especially how much we love and care for them even though we have affirmed our Palestinian brothers and sisters in our vote.”
Advocates for divestment said Presbyterians need to take action to break the longstanding occupation under which Israeli settlements have grown while Palestinians’ homes are destroyed and agricultural resources are confiscated.
The Rev. Frank Allen offered a minority report that would avoid divestment and continue dialogue and advocacy for a two-state solution.
“God’s children are on all sides of this conflict and the world needs a reconciled and reconciling Presbyterian Church,” he said.
Dries Coetzee, a church representative from Ohio, said divestment would benefit Israelis the same way it benefited him as a native white South African when Presbyterians and others pressured his homeland to end apartheid.
“You put me on the road to getting back my humanity,” he said. “... You invested in us as human beings.”
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