Members of the largest U.S. Presbyterian denomination rejected a controversial proposal Thursday night to divest millions of dollars of investments in companies that many members have said are profiting from death and destruction in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Members of the 1.9-million member Presbyterian Church (USA) instead voted to pursue "positive investment" in the region through companies and efforts they said would promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Closely watched by Middle Eastern advocacy groups in the U.S. and abroad, the move means that the church will keep more than $17 million invested in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, whose military and security equipment are used by the Israeli government.
The move by Presbyterians is the latest blow to the divestment movement among churches. Earlier this year at its General Conference in Tampa, the United Methodist Church rejected a similar measure. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the country's largest Lutheran denomination, most recently voted against divestment in 2011.
The Episcopal Church has also rejected divestment, but will discuss how to support peace between Israelis and Palestinians at its General Convention, which began Thursday in Indianapolis and continues through July 12. At least one group, Friends Fiduciary Committee, which coordinates investments for 250 Quaker groups, divested from Caterpillar this year.
The idea of positive investment was not originally up for a vote among Presbyterians. But during three hours of debate, the church general assembly voted 333 to 331, with two abstentions, to propose debating positive investment instead of divestment. Members of the assembly, made up of pastors and laypeople, then voted 369 to 290, with eight abstentions, for the church to pursue positive investment.
The Rev. Brian Ellison, a Kansas City, Mo., Presbyterian pastor and chair of the church's Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee, said an interview that he was disappointed in the vote.
"It's hard to know how best to move forward in our engagement with companies doing business in the region, but I respect the wisdom of the assembly," said Ellison.
The committee's job is to implement church policies on socially responsible giving. The denomination has rules against investing in dozens companies involved in military-related products, tobacco or human rights violations.
Church members had targeted Caterpillar because the company's bulldozers have been used in the demolition of Palestinian homes and in the building of the Israeli West Bank barrier. They said Motorola Solutions' communication technologies are used by Israeli forces. Members wanted divestment from Hewlett-Packard because they said the company's products have been used by the Israeli Navy to coordinate its blockage of the Gaza Strip and said the company provides biometric scanners used at checkpoints.
“It appears that church commissioners were swayed by a fear that divestment would cause irreparable harm to Jewish-Christian relations,” said Rev. Katherine Cunningham, vice-moderator of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a pro-Palestinian Presbyterian group. “In reality, the divestment motion was supported by a broad alliance of Jews, Christians, and others who believe that nonviolent means such as divestment are an effective way to pressure the Israeli government into abiding by international law and respecting Palestinian human rights.”
The divestment issue was strongly opposed by many Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, Americans for
Peace Now, J Street and the American Jewish Committee. During debates Thursday night, Palestinian church members told of seeing homes destroyed in their homeland during the conflict with Israel.
More than 22,000 American Jews had signed a letter to church leaders calling divestment a "counterproductive proposal." The letter, sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Israel Action Network, an effort of the Jewish Federations of North America, said divesting from the three companies would damage "the relationship between Jews and Christians that has been nurtured for decades" and would promote "a lopsided assessment of the causes of and solutions to the conflict, disregarding the complex history and geopolitics."
The Presbyterian church's meeting continues Friday and is scheduled include a vote on another hotly contested issue: same-sex marriage.