A very emotional debate this evening, over the difficult issue of divestment from companies that support certain activities of the Israeli government in the occupied Palestinian territories. Although the Assembly's committee had previously voted to recommend divestment from three companies - Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard - the Assembly overturned that recommendation on a razor-thin vote of 333 to 331.
Brian Ellison, of the denomination's Mission Responsibility Through Investment Program, explained the reasons why his group had singled out these three companies, from the hundreds who do business with Israel in ways that support the Palestinian occupation. Caterpillar makes military bulldozers the Israelis use to bulldoze Palestinian houses justs after the occupants have been evicted. Motorola Solutions provides electronic surveillance equipment. Hewlett-Packard manufactures body-scanning equipment the Israelis use at checkpoints. Unlike the vast majority of other companies, Brian explained, these three have been almost completely unresponsive to church efforts to sit down with their management and discuss business ethics. The divestment recommendation comes at the end of a long series of less-sweeping actions on the part of the church, none of which has yielded any progress.
This is a large and complex issue that evokes strong feelings on both sides. Presbyterians are of a divided mind about it, because we value both the safety and integrity of the state of Israel and the civil rights of our brothers and sisters in the Palestinian lands (some of whom are Christians with whom we have long-standing mission relationships). There's no doubt the Israelis have behaved badly in many aspects of their administration of the occupied territories, but there is also a very real concern for their national security, as some terrorist organizations operate out of the West Bank and Gaza.
There's of course incredible irony in the fact that a Jewish state born out of the horrors of the Holocaust has, in recent years, built a wall to confine an ethnic group different from their own, in a way that resembles the ghettos of Europe.
I'm not sure how I feel about it, personally. I feel genuinely perplexed by the competing claims on both sides.
There are also very real questions about whether divestment is a merely symbolic action, anyway, since even the millions of dollars in investments in these companies held by our Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation are but a drop in the bucket, when compared to the vast number of shares these companies have issued. Is it worth infuriating our Jewish neighbors here in this country, some ask, to pursue a course of action that could very well be quixotic?
With tonight's action, what the church is proposing to do, instead, is to pursue a positive strategy of investing in Palestinian businesses, so as to alleviate just a little of the grinding poverty that makes life in the occupied territories so hopeless. As someone who knows the situation shared with me tonight, though, there's a real question as to whether the Israelis - who have a tight lock on everything that happens in the Palestinian territories - would allow such investment to take place.
Time will tell, I suppose.
I spent the evening assisting Young Adult Advisory Delegates and Theological School Advisory Delegates as they patiently waited in line at the microphone for an opportunity to speak. Even they were divided; some of them spoke in favor of one side, some the other.
Maybe it's just as well that, as divided as we Presbyterians are on the issue, we didn't end up in the position of taking such a concerted social-action stance with only the barest majority of the General Assembly behind it.
I wonder if, perhaps, we haven't done enough to enter into dialogue with our Jewish neighbors here in this country, to try to change some of their hearts and minds, so they take notice of the fact that atrocities have been committed on both sides in this dreadful cross-border confrontation. It's a sure thing that the Israeli government will pay a lot more attention to what American Jews are saying than American Presbyterians.
(Opinions expressed above are purely my own, and in no way reflect the views of presbytery management.)