June 20, 2014 at 10:50 pm

Presbyterians at Detroit convention vote to divest holdings in 3 companies

The commissioners of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

Detroit— Attendees at the Presbyterian convention Friday voted to divest from three U.S. companies the church has accused of profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands that have been in dispute for decades.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted 310 to 303 to approve the move— two years after the same measure failed by a few votes at the church’s national convention in Pittsburgh.

“After a decade of corporate engagement with Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions, these companies have failed to modify their behavior and continue to profit from Israeli human rights abuses and non-peaceful pursuits,” said the Rev. Dr. Walt Davis, a member of the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network and professor emeritus at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. “This is a historic vote and the culmination of a long and deliberate internal process within the church.”

The Middle East committee of the church voted Tuesday to recommend to the more than 650-member General Assembly that it divest from the three — all companies the church has accused of profiting from what it considers illegal settlements and surveillance of Palestinians.

The debate Friday, one day after the church voted to sanction same-sex marriages, largely centered on debates over amendments that would have softened or strengthened some of the language in the resolution.

With the vote, the Presbyterians became the most prominent religious group in the United States to endorse divestment as a protest against Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

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.

Supporters said the move Friday to divest was necessary. “Our denomination has been a leading voice in establishing the socially responsible investment movement that began in the early 1970s to end apartheid in South Africa,” Carol Hylkema, another IPMN member, said in statement Friday. “This is a matter of stewardship and this decision brings our investments in line with our values.”

But others denounced the move.

In a statement, Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called the decision “outrageous. ... This decision will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on relations between mainstream Jewish groups and the national Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 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.”

Roberta Seid, director of education/research for StandWithUs, an international, nonprofit Israel education group, said the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement “has groomed a Presbyterian contingent which manipulates committee rules to hijack the agenda, skew the debate and silence alternative views. ... Well-meaning Presbyterians were simply misled.”

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

In statements this week, Motorola Solutions said it “supports all efforts in the region to find a peaceful resolution to their differences.” Caterpillar Inc. said “we believe it is appropriate for such a resolution to be reached via political and diplomatic channels.” Hewlett-Packard said: “Respecting human rights is a core value ... and is embedded in the way we do business. We have strong policies that promote regular human rights risk assessments ... .”

Patrick Lane, a young adult student delegate from northern Mississippi, had urged the assembly to reject the measure. “Divesting does not help the peace talks,” he said.

The discussion Friday centered on whether the Presbyterians were doing enough to address the plight of the Palestinians or if the church’s action would further alienate the Jewish community against Presbyterians.

Frank Allen, a teaching elder commissioner from central Florida, spoke passionately against the move, saying it will “alienate us” from Israel and Jews in the United States.

“Do we really think we become more peaceful makers by alienating these good folks?” he asked.

Christine Sackett, a ruling elder commissioner of Detroit who sat on the Middle East committee earlier in the week, said she came to the debate this year “with no sides chosen” but walks away supporting divestment as “the right way to go.”

Elizabeth Terry Dunning, chairwoman of the church’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee that makes certain the church’s investments are socially responsible, said the church had been negotiating with the companies for more than a decade with no results.

“We remain invested in many, many companies that do peaceful business” in the Middle East, Dunning said. “These three companies remain deeply involved in non-peaceful pursuits.”

Earlier, the assembly also voted overwhelmingly to promote a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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The Associated Press contributed.