Second Tuesday: the Israel/Palestinian conflict and the PC(USA)

My second day in DC brought me back to the Hill and the United Methodist building to a seminar event for church members organised by the Presbyterian Washington Office. Known as Second Tuesday, this monthly event, held when Congress is in session, brings church members to Washington to learn about current issues.

On June 12, the topic was ‘Should the Church Make Money from Human Rights Abuses?’ The main speaker was Bill Somplatsky‐Jarman of Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI), a committee of the General Assembly (GA) which ‘implements the General Assembly’s policies on socially responsible investing (also called faith-based investing) by engaging corporations in which the church owns stock. This is accomplished through correspondence, dialogues, voting shareholder proxies and recommending similar action to others, and occasionally filing shareholder resolutions’.

Like many churches, the PC(USA) tries to pursue an ethical policy with its investments (which total, I believe, over $1bn). Sometimes business activities go against the purposes of the Church, so the Church avoids them (such as arms manufacturers). But what if  company mostly does peaceful things, but also gets involved in things the Church doesn’t like?

Under US law, shareholders- who after all are part-owners of a company- have a right to enagage in dialogue with the management on issues of concern. They can, of course, vote and pass resolutions at a company AGM. In the UK, we have seen examples of this recently as some investors have objected to oversized executive pay deals. As a last resort, a shareholder can, of course, simply sell their shares- disinvestment, or as it is often called in the US, disvesment. In recent years, the PC(USA) ‘disvested’ from Talisman, a Canadian oil company which earned revenue for the Sudanese government to fund its genocide and war.

In 2004, the GA instructed its MRTI committee to engage with companies doing business in Israel and Palestine whose activities were working against a just peace in the region (since the GA had often voiced its concern for such a just peace). A number of companies in which the PC(USA) had investments were identified, and attempts were made to begin dialogue with them.

At the 2006 and 2008 GAs (GA meets biannually), pro-Palestinian supporters on the floor of the GA attempt to put an end these dialogues. However, the GA agreed with MRTI that they should continue to attempt to persuade the companies concerned by continuing the dialogue. By 2010, MRTI was reporting some, but not much progress with the companies involved. There was an attempt at the 2010 GA to already disvest from Caterpillar, but this was rejected by MRTI on the grounds that they still hoped for progress.

The companies which MRTI had been in dialogue with since 2004 were Caterpillar, Citicorp, Hewlett-Packard, ITT, Motorola and United Technologies, all of who were seen as being involved, in some way, in non-peaceful pursuits in Israel and Palestine. In three cases progress was made through dialogue with the companies concerned, so that these ompanies were removed from the threat of disvestment. Citicorp were involved with banks which were used to make transfers of the funds to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers; they were persuaded to tighten their oversight and adopted better oversight policies. ITT are head-quartered in White Plains (!), and the local Hudson River Presbytery were able to be part of the dialogue. They tightened up regarding human resources issues which were bothering the church. United Technologies split into separate companies; the church disvested from the new company which was majoring on defence work.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) are regarded by MRTI as supporting the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory by providing technologies such as biometric scanning used at border checkpoints, and computer and communications services sold to the Israeli navy and army. MRTI are reporting to the GA 2012 that HP have never taken seriously the dialogue, which has been going on since 2009, and they have no hope that things might change.

Motorola provides electronics and telecoms. They have been refusing to meet with religious shareholders since 2008.

Caterpillar provides construction equipment which is used for the demolition of Palestinian homes, the destruction of farms (including ancient olive trees), the construction of Israeli-only roads in the occupied territories, and the construction of the security barrier across Palestinian land. The D9, for example is a weaponised bulldozer used by the Israeli army. Caterpillar consistently maintains that they cannot be responsible for what their customers do with their products. However, they define their dealerships as their ‘customers’, and it is the local dealers who sell on to the Israeli army. Interestingly, the company adopted a different policy regarding Iran a few years ago: in that case, they did say that they could direct dealers about to whom they may sell equipment.

There had been no response to requests for dialogue with the company until 2010, when the Caterpillar management eventually met with the PC(USA) and the United Methodists. However, at that meeting they reiterated that their policy would not change, and that they would not take responsibility for the use to which their products were put. For that reason, MRTI are now asking that the GA put the company on the disvestment list.

Bill Somplatsky‐Jarman maintained that his committee (including sober-minded accountants and officials representing the investment funds of the church) have simply gone through the procedures set out by previous GAs to put into practice the decisions and priorities of the church. Certainly, one must give them credit for their patience, for engaging in what seems often to have been a frustrating eight years. The explanation for the glacial rate of progress is not, I suggest, simply a Presbyterian concern to do things by the book. Rather it also reflects the controversial nature of anything to do with Israel, both in internal Church politics, and in the wider sphere.

In our own General Assembly in Scotland, any debate and discussion about Israel tends to cause heat and passion. There is, perhaps, a broader consensus in our Church (as within Scotland) that the Palestinian people tend to get a raw deal. No-one excuses terrorist acts, such as suicide bombings, whether against Israel or beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine. Scotland and the UK have suffered from the effects of the wider Middle-Eastern conflict. But there is perhaps more sympathy for ordinary Palestinian people and their plight as refugees, or living under occupation. However, whenever anything comes before our GA which seems to be critical of the State or government of Israel, a small, but vocal, minority lifts its voice in defence of Israel and with (implied) criticism of the Palestinians (or at least, their leadership).

Of course, generally speaking ‘the West’ supports the State of Israel. It was a British government which, in the Balfour Declaration of 1926, which first raised the serious possibility of a ‘homeland’ for the Jewish people. After the Second World War, and the horrors of the holocaust, the Zionist movement was able to establish a Jewish state from the ruins of the British Mandate- albeit that international law was not willing to give all the land which perhaps the Zionists would have wanted. And wars between Arab states and Israel began the process through which Palestinians either became refugees, or found what international law said was their territory was occupied by Israel.

Those British politicians who framed the Balfour declaration were probably influenced, at least in part, by a sympathy for the Jewish people which had theological origins. And since then, some Christians have more or less strongly believed to see the hand of God in the re-establishment of the State of Israel, as the beginning of the end of the almost 2,000 year exile of the Jewish people. This is a particularly strong belief in many parts of American evangelicalism, including the ‘religious right’ or ‘values voters’ who (for their own theological reasons) have come to be some of the strongest supporters of the Republican party in recent decades. This Republican evangelical Christian lobby unites with the Jewish members and supporters of Israel within the Democratic party to create the pervasive view of the Arab/Israeli conflict in Washington. Strong support for Israel is a staple of American foreign policy, regardless of administration, even as the US seeks ways to bring peace to the region.

In simplistic terms, you could say: the peace wall is to help defend Israel against Palestinian terrorism. Israel is America’s closest ally, so you could see the peace wall as being in the national security interests of the United States as well. Why, then, seek to shame an American company which keeps to US and Israeli laws? By weakening them, is not the Church siding with America’s enemies in the war on terror?

It is not surprising that local communities where these companies are based tend to be sympathetic towards them. Bill Somplatsky‐Jarman attended a meeting of the local presbytery where Caterpillar is headquartered, to discover the Moderator wearing a Caterpillar T-shirt (although there were voices which supported the MRTI view). Yet across the wider Church there are many who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and we were told that the Church’s local partners in Israel/Palestine felt that it is important that the Church acts according to it policy of seeking peace in the region.

After eight years, MRTI feels that they have exhausted all the processes which the GA had instructed them to go through, and so they have brought to the GA the recommendation to disvest from Caterpillar. This has caused a furore- this will be one of the major debates at the GA. It is not just that there is a debate between those who think the Church ought not to get into such a debate, and those who are to some degree sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. It is also that the issue has a symbolic resonance beyond the Church. Presbyterian disvestment from four US companies will make no financial difference: someone else will buy the shares. The PC(USA) will continue to hold shares in other US companies who do business in Israel. And who cares what a now small denomination does? Yet a few weeks ago, a similar disvestment proposal failed to be passed by the United Methodist conference. We heard stories of widespread and well-financed lobbying against the proposal from pro-Israeli groups. It was suggested that this was an attempt by outside interests to buy a decision of the GA. Clearly, this proposal is controversial more because of its symbolic status than because of its practical significance.

In many parts of the United States, Presbyterian Churches (including liberal ones) have long-standing relations with the local Jewish communities (there are even Presbyterian churches and synagogues which share buildings). Yet even for liberal Jews, the divestment motion seems to them to be an attack on Israel as a whole (although some Jewish groups are opposed to the policies of the current Israeli government and welcome this sort of action). They are therefore very defensive; and the lobbying is incessant, well-organised and well-financed. Local rabbis will have been receiving short and to the point briefing letters telling them that the PC(USA) is disvesting from Israel (which MRTI deny). We heard that some elders and ministers were being offered ‘fact-finding’ trips to Israel. Bill Somplatsky‐Jarman, man of many years experience working for the Church, seemed aghast at the opprobrium which had come his committee’s way in recent months, particularly from outside the church.

Here is one of the fault lines of American Church and political life. A modest proposal can set a Church against itself and lead to consequences in the wider arena, which seem to leave the denomination’s officers speechless. Israel and Palestine is a matter which we will come back to in other contexts, for it seems that this is one of the most difficult issues for the Church to deal with in its public witness in this country.

There is an audio recording of the seminar available here. The first speaker, offering the opening prayer, is that of J. Herbert Nelson, whom I had met the previous day.

Here are some photos of the event, and the buffet lunch which followed. I’m grateful to the Rev Dr Ralph G Clingan, a retired Presbyterian pastor who attended the event, and who surprised me by offering a closing prayer by St Columba! Naturally we had to meet. He has mayn Scottish connections, having served in Dundee and made links with the Iona Community.

Update

A few weeks later, the 2012 PC(USA) General Assembly decided not to vote for disvestment. However, the proposal did succeed at the 2014 General Assembly.

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About Rev Peter W Nimmo

Minister of Old High St Stephen's Church, Inverness, Scotland, UK www.oldhighststephens.com
This entry was posted in General Assembly, Middle East, Presbyterian Church (USA), Uncategorized, Washington DC and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Second Tuesday: the Israel/Palestinian conflict and the PC(USA)

  1. Pingback: Will Israel, gay issues to dominate PC (USA) General Assembly? | peterstudyleave

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