by: David Harris-Gershon on June 20th, 2014 | 10 Comments »
In a contentious vote guaranteed to be met with outrage by hawkish U.S. politicians and some Jewish leaders, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted 310-303 to divest from three major U.S. companies engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in Israel-Palestine.
PC(USA) voted on Friday evening at its 221st General Assembly in Detroit to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, three companies which provide equipment and technological implements utilized by the IDF in its military occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank. The church’s divestment overture focused only on these three companies, and was careful not to align itself with the international BDS movement or with any efforts to divest from the State of Israel (per a passed amendment during the proceedings).
At the General Assembly before the vote, Caterpillar was singled out for providing the IDF with equipment used in home demolitions, the construction of settler-only roads and the uprooting of Palestinian farmlands illegally appropriated by Israel; HP was singled out for providing biometric scanners used on Palestinians at checkpoints and customized software for the Israeli Navy; and Motorola was singled out for providing surveillance systems used by the settlements in the West Bank.
Two years ago, a similar divestment overture was voted down 333-331. This year’s vote represents real movement within the church, particularly after the collapse of U.S.-led peace talks, to recognize that it must act, albeit largely symbolically, to help Palestinians attain those human rights which have been denied them for decades.
The vote also mirrors a growing recognition within America that nonviolent pressure – outside of the political process – must be brought to bear on Israel to end its settlement expansions and military occupation. That recognition, particularly prevalent amongst younger Americans, is showing itself both among progressive American rabbis and college students, particularly those who support the BDS movement. However, it is also a view which is beginning to be shared by those who oppose the BDS movement, but who feel that peaceful pressure must be brought to bear for real progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be made.
Before the divestment vote, PC(USA) distanced itself from a publication released by the Israel/Palestine Mission of the church called, “Zionism Unsettled.” The paper, which strongly critiques the ideological underpinnings of Zionism as well as the real-world human rights abuses which have occurred over many decades, has been slammed by a number of Jewish leaders across America as anti-Semitic. While the church passed a resolution stating that the paper does not represent the views of the denomination as a whole, it will remain available for purchase through PC(USA) to avoid the spectre of the church bowing to censorship pressures.
That the divestment vote passed given this contextual backdrop further speaks to the distance the church has moved on this issue, and on feelings that actions of conscience needed to be taken as Israeli settlements expand at increasing rates. And the vote was made knowing that, despite explicit language stating otherwise, the Presbyterian Church would be misrepresented by some as anti-Israel and as divesting from Israel.
While the financial impact of PC(USA) divestment on U.S. companies will be minuscule, the vote will reverberate strongly both here and in Israel, where its significance will likely be downplayed by those who most vocally condemn it, thus giving the vote even more symbolic weight.
If nothing else, the vote will amplify a conversation which remains too quiet in mainstream America – a conversation about the true realities of the suffering experienced by both Palestinians and Israelis in an asymmetrical conflict. A conversation about what we, as a society, can and must do to change a status quo our elected officials have failed to alter for far too long.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.