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Presbyterian Church's Next Move Could Be A Tipping Point In The Israeli Divestment Debate

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When thousands of leaders of the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination meet this week for the church's biennial General Assembly, they'll pore through detailed proposals on dozens of topics, from gun violence to same-sex marriage to organic farming. But members expect one controversial issue to dominate the discussion: The 1.76 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may be poised to become the largest religious group to divest millions of dollars from a handful of major corporations that pro-Palestinian activists have said contribute to violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After years of failed attempts to remove at least $21 million of the church's funds from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard, a divestment measure could pass at the upcoming Detroit meeting, which begins Saturday, June 14 and runs for a week. An internal church committee focused on social responsibility has targeted the three corporations for the way their products are used in building Jewish settlements, running checkpoints and constructing the Israel-Gaza barrier.

"For Presbyterians, this is a matter of stewardship. We are called as Christians to be good stewards of God's abundance. And we find ourselves with money in our foundation and in our pensions invested in companies that do more harm than good," said Elizabeth Dunning, moderator of the church's Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee. "We don't invest in alcohol, tobacco, gambling and some kinds of weapons manufacturers either."

Dunning said the church has focused on Caterpillar because its bulldozers have been used to demolish Palestinian homes and on Motorola Solutions because the Israeli Defense Force buys the company's communication technologies. She said the church singled out Hewlett-Packard because the Israeli Navy has used its products to coordinate the blockade of the Gaza Strip and because its biometric scanners are in place at checkpoints.

A Motorola Solutions spokeswoman said the company has policies to "ensure that our operations worldwide are conducted using the highest standards of integrity and ethical business conduct." A Hewlett-Packard spokeswoman said that the business has "policies that promote regular human rights risk assessments" and that its checkpoint products help "people to get to their place of work or to carry out their business in a faster and safer way." Caterpillar has defended itself in the past, noting that its bulldozers are provided to Israel through a U.S. military sales program.

Representatives of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), meanwhile, have said they have tried over the years to discuss these matters with the companies to no avail.

In addition to the divestment measure, a move that major Jewish groups have strongly criticized, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is expected to take a separate vote to boycott all Hewlett-Packard products. There are also proposals on defining Israel as an "apartheid" nation and addressing the church's current support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"We are seeing this more and more in not just churches, but all over the place, when it comes to boycotting or divesting from certain companies in Israel or products in general," said Ronald Stockton, a University of Michigan-Dearborn political science professor who specializes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Many people see it as a moral issue, not a political one. They don't want to profit from what they see as someone else's suffering."

If divestment passes, Stockton predicts, it will be a watershed moment not only in the divided Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which defeated a similar measure by just two votes two years ago, but among the wider Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Stockton and others have suggested the decision to divest by one major U.S. denomination could push other churches on the brink to act.

Members of several U.S. churches, including the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have debated similar divestments in recent years but have not gathered enough support to do it. The Friends Fiduciary Corporation, which coordinates investments for 250 Quaker groups, succeeded in divesting from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Veolia Environment in 2012.

"It's a really tense topic. Even if Presbyterians don't divest, many people consider the immense attention it's getting a win. They're starting a conversation," said Stockton, who himself attends a Presbyterian church.

One key factor is how a Christian church's formal decision to divest over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might affect its interfaith relations. Jewish Americans do not speak with one voice on the issue.

Some of the country's largest Jewish organizations have criticized such moves as part of a broader effort to delegitimize Israel and said they could threaten faith relations. The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., is sending its president to Detroit to address Presbyterians on the conference floor and speak against divestment.

"I'm from a movement that is very clear, and has been for decades, on Israel. We criticize settlements, we are distressed by the occupation, and we can take issue with certain Israeli policies. But we are deeply committed to Israel and Zionism," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. "We are 100 percent opposed to BDS."

Jacobs also criticized "Zionism Unsettled," a booklet published by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a Presbyterian group, and sold online by the church. It calls Zionism a "false theology."

Other Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, are sending their own rabbis to argue for divestment.

In 2012, when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) last debated the issue, many Jewish and pro-Israel groups -- including the Anti-Defamation League, J Street and the American Jewish Committee -- argued strongly against divestment. A 22,000-signature letter, sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Israel Action Network (an effort of the Jewish Federations of North America), warned that divestment would damage "the relationship between Jews and Christians that has been nurtured for decades."

That year, the church decided to support "positive investment" in the Palestinian territories. Dunning, of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee, said the church has committed to investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in education, renewable energy and micro-finance projects.

Israel-related divestment isn't the only kind that will be up for a vote at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s gathering. Several of the church's regional bodies have proposed divesting from fossil fuel companies, following the United Church of Christ, which passed a similar divestment last year.

And as an increasing number of states legalize gay marriage, Presbyterians will consider again whether to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies. Several proposals are up for debate, including a measure to change the church's definition of marriage from between "a man and a woman" to a joining of "two people," and a measure to allow ministers in states where same-sex marriage is legal to officiate such weddings. Though related proposals were defeated in 2012 and they may not pass this year, observers predict that ongoing generational shifts that are bringing more liberal younger Presbyterians into leadership could lead the church to support same-sex marriage sometime in the near future.

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