At the 220th General Assembly of the U.S. Presbyterian Church held earlier this month, the Assembly approved a boycott on “all Israeli products coming from the occupied Palestinian territories." The Assembly chose not to divest from three companies participating in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza and voted “to pursue a positive and creative course of action with respect to the current Palestinian/Israeli conflict,” and to “devise a plan of active engagement and projects that will support collaboration among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.”
The vote against divestment of the three U.S. companies was narrowly won, by just two votes (333-331). The Jewish News Service (see video embedded below) is alarmed, reporting that the divestment initiative was driven by what it characterizes as a radical and dangerous Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that aims to punish Israel for what it views as civil rights violations. Reporting that it is a well-organized and well-funded group, the news service says that BDS has targeted every Protestant church denomination with divestment initiatives, which insiders say are getting more intense and harder to fight.
At 2 million members, the Presbyterian Church is the third largest mainline Protestant group in the United States. The General Assembly meets once every two years.
The Assembly debated and passed a divestment initiative in 2004, but that resolution was rescinded through the efforts of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. The group has created a fact check web page on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and supports a two-state solution premised on first ending conflict. "We believe that both Israel and the future state of Palestine will benefit from embracing pluralism and policies of non-discrimination based on ethnicity, race, or religion," the Presbyterians for Middle East Peace writes, adding, "We believe it is wrong to trivialize or ignore the fact that Israel today faces factions and groups that openly call for the Jewish State’s violent destruction and threaten it’s people. Groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are the primary obstacle to the two-state solution and make the Israeli military presence in and around Palestinian territories necessary. These groups, and others that oppose peace and call for the destruction of Israel, must be rejected by the Palestinian people before a Palestinian state can be created."
The Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (IPMN) is said to be associated with the BDS movement. Reflecting on the General Assembly vote, the IPMN issued a report stating,
At the close of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) wishes to reflect on the results of the GA and to thank all of our friends, supporters, and the hundreds of church commissioners who took a stand for human rights and justice in the Holy Land last week by voting according to their consciences, and not according to their fears.
While the resolution calling for targeted divestment from three companies that profit from Israeli violations of international law and abuses of Palestinian human rights was not adopted by the plenary, it was approved overwhelmingly by the church’s Committee on Middle East Peacemaking Issues (Committee 15), and the minority report that replaced it won by a mere two out of 666 votes, with two commissioners abstaining. In truth, a full plenary discussion on divestment never took place, pre-empted by the minority report’s adoption.
On the other hand, the resolution calling for a boycott of just two products made in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories was expanded and strengthened by Committee 15 to cover all Israeli products made in the occupied territories, before being approved by an overwhelming majority (457-180, or 71%) of the plenary in what was a very divided Assembly. The boycott vote puts the Presbyterian Church (USA) squarely into the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005 and officially endorsed by the Palestinian Christian community in 2009 with the Kairos Palestine document. "Presbyterians have heard the call for economic solidarity from Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians,” said Rev. Jeff DeYoe, IPMN Advocacy Chair. “The IPMN looks forward to assisting the church in determining which products will be included in the boycott.”
Despite the fact that they failed to pass divestment, afterwards 57% of church commissioners voted in favor of a resolution directing the church’s 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.” Although this motion was later overturned on a procedural technicality by the GA’s Stated Clerk, it clearly reflected a desire on the part of a majority of commissioners to provide an option for individual Presbyterians who have moral qualms about profiting from these three companies, whose products are used to inflict so much hardship and suffering on Palestinians.
“A few short years ago, any one of these things would have been considered a significant victory for divestment and boycott supporters,” said Rev. Katherine Cunningham, IPMN Vice-Moderator. “At every General Assembly since these issues were first introduced in 2004, the church has moved slowly but steadily towards the positions advocated by the IPMN. In 2010, following our official endorsement of a boycott of Ahava Dead Sea beauty products and dates from the Hadiklaim Co-op, we were attacked by critics for being ‘ahead of the church.’ Last week, the rest of the church caught up with the IPMN on boycotting settlement products, and moved much further in the direction of divestment than anybody could have expected just a few years ago. We believe it’s only a matter of time before the church catches up on divestment too, and we look forward to the next GA in Detroit in 2014, and to the day when both Israelis and Palestinians are able to live in peace and freedom.”
According to the Jewish News Service, the vote concerning boycotting Israeli goods made "on Palestinian territories" causes concern because they say that no Palestinian lands legally exist. "An anti-Israel distorted narrative is gaining legitimacy in American forums since legally, no Palestinian lands exist yet," the service reports (see video below).
In May, the United Methodist Church voted 2-1 against divestment from Israel. The Episcopalians have also rejected a BDS amendment.
In April 2011, the British Quakers called for a boycott of products from Israeli settlements on the West Bank. “In the face of the armed oppression of poor people and the increasing encroachment of the illegal settlements in the West Bank, we cannot do nothing,” minutes of the representative decision-making body for Quakers in Britain, Meeting for Sufferings, stated.
The Jewish News Service says that "the adoption of BDS measures as official church policy sets precedent and normalizes extremist agendas. It also unfairly singles out Israel for condemnation as no other country's actions were discussed, this despite the fact that many of these Christians' counterparts throughout the Middle East face regular persecution because of their faith."