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Presbyterian Boycott Vote a Victory for Human Rights and Justice

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The mainstream U.S. press, paying unusual attention to U.S. corporate complicity in Israel's occupation, wrote quite extensively about last week's Presbyterian campaign for corporate social responsibility. Virtually all the headlines focused on the two million-strong Presbyterian Church (USA) decision not to divest from multi-national corporations profiting from the Israeli occupation and settlement policies.

"In Close Vote, Presbyterian Church Rejects Divesting in Firms That Aid Israeli Occupation," said the New York Times. The Associated Press reported, "US Presbyterians Reject Israel Divestment." According to the Christian Science Monitor, "Presbyterians Reject Call to Divest over Israel's West Bank Occupation."

It took Ha'aretz, the leading Israeli daily, to get it right: "Presbyterian Church in U.S. votes to boycott Israeli settlement goods," their headline read.

The voting at the Pittsburgh meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- PC (USA) -- was the latest step in an eight-year campaign to bring the Church's investment policies into line with its commitment to social justice. It had tried for those eight years to persuade the multinational corporations to stop enabling Israeli violations of international law -- an effort that Church leaders overwhelmingly agreed had failed. Presbyterian corporate responsibility activists, led by their Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee, had moved from studying, to attempting to engage with corporate leadership, to shareholder actions, all aimed at pressing for accountability in those corporations in which the Church had invested millions of dollars.

The Assembly approved a call to boycott all Israeli settlement-made goods (stronger than the original proposal), and to urge all other countries to boycott such goods. The Church had earlier called for suspending U.S. military aid to Israel. The proposal calling for divestment from specific corporations profiting from occupation and militarism, was ultimately taken off the table when a razor-thin majority (333-331 with two abstentions) approved a substitute motion calling for a vote on investment in Palestinian enterprises instead.

The divestment effort was in response to specific corporate actions: Caterpillar sells giant D-9 bulldozers to the Israeli military, specially configured for armor plating and used to demolish Palestinian homes and olive trees; Motorola Solutions creates specialized surveillance systems for Israeli settlements; and Hewlett-Packard provides retina scanners to control Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints in the occupied territories and equipment Israel uses to impose its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Despite the narrow decision not to vote on the divestment proposal, the overall process of the PC (USA) represents a huge victory in the struggle for Palestinian rights, and a huge step in the effort to delegitimize U.S. corporate support for occupation and towards a foreign policy based on human rights, international law and equality for all. It is a huge indicator of just how far mainstream U.S. discourse on this issue has been transformed. During the Pittsburgh debate, it was notable that virtually none of the opponents of divestment even attempted to defend Israeli actions. The opposition was limited to anachronistic claims that it would undermine Presbyterian-Jewish relations in the U.S., or that despite their actions in relation to Israel-Palestine the companies somehow were still good guys that shouldn't be punished. The debate, ultimately, was not over whether Israel's actions were wrong, but more simply, what the Presbyterians should do in response to those wrongs.

The Presbyterian effort further demonstrates that the broader BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign to bring non-violent pressure on Israel to end its violations, far from representing a marginal or fringe movement, actually reflects a broad shift in mainstream opinion. Just a couple of weeks ago the powerful investment broker Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) removed Caterpillar from its social responsibility index, followed 24 hours later by pension-fund giant TIAA-CREF's decision to divest its more than $72 million of Caterpillar stock. The Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation has also divested $900,000 from Caterpillar.

These financial moves provide the latest evidence of how the U.S. discourse on Israel-Palestine has changed and is changing. In the mass media, the language is far different than it once was. Last October, investigative reporter Walter Pincus wrote what would once have been a startling piece, headlined "United States needs to reevaluate its assistance to Israel." In May he wrote another, whose headline asked "Is the U.S. Going Above and Beyond for Israel?" The article began, "should the United States put solving Israel's budget problems ahead of its own? When it comes to defense spending, it appears that the United States already is."

Those articles would not have been unusual to see in any number of websites, blogs and magazines known for their criticism of Israel -- but they were in the Washington Post, arguably the most pro-Israeli of the recognized national papers. And more astonishing than the fact that the articles (as analysis, not op-eds) ran at all, was the realization that the sky didn't fall when they did. Criticism of Israel is now the new normal.

In 2010, in the midst of the furor surrounding the Obama administration's differences with Netanyahu's government in Israel over settlement policy, a Zogby poll asked participants to choose which of two responses to Israeli settlement building best matched their own. Response number one said Israelis were building settlements for security and they had the right to build wherever they chose. Sentence number two said the settlements were being built on confiscated Palestinian land, and they should be torn down and the land returned to its original owners. Despite its deliberately provocative language, 63 percent of Democrats chose sentence number two.

And all of that is before we even begin to analyze the massive shifts in Jewish community opinion, where right-wing pro-Israel money still plays a hugely influential role in Congress, but no longer (if it ever did) represents anything close to a majority of Jewish voters. And where the pro-divestment Jewish Voice for Peace now counts chapters in more than 30 cities, and a supporter list of over 100,000.

Times have changed. And the Presbyterian vote to boycott settlement goods, end U.S. military aid to Israel, and more, both reflects and moves forward that powerful change.