The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) held a debate during its General Assembly in Pittsburgh, Pa., where a proposed divestment from companies doing business with the Israeli government was narrowly rejected on Thursday.
The Assembly, which will also be debating a number of key issues such as same-sex marriage, initially voted to bring the issue up for discussion and ask members whether they wanted the church to continue doing business with companies like Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard, which have been supplying the Israeli military with security products. These business ties are seen by some as harmful to the Palestinian people who live under Israeli occupation in disputed territories in the West Bank. The PC(USA) had reportedly been in talks with these companies for the past eight years, which was unsuccessful in implementing changes.
"It's too early to know what is going to happen, but I have been moved to tears on multiple occasions as I saw authentic recognition of Palestinian experience and deep commitment to justice for all people by the Presbyterian Church," commented Rabbi Alissa Wise, the director of campaigns for Jewish Voice for Peace, after the vote. "This is a historic moment in the struggle for dignity and justice, and I commend the PC(USA) for getting us this close to holding corporations accountable for profiting from the occupation."
The outcome of Thursday's vote puts the PC(USA) in step with other mainline Protestant denominations, such as the United Methodist Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, that have decided against divestment.
Political observers and faith leaders had been critical of the proposed divestment, saying that it unfairly targets Israel.
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said in a statement prior to the Assembly vote:
"It is revealing that Israel is the only country targeted for divestment. Presbyterians can seek to be fair brokers between Israelis and Palestinians, or they can immediately marginalize their voice by solely blaming one side.
"Why was the Committee on Middle East Peacemaking silent on grievous violations in Syria, Egypt and bombings in Kenya and Nigeria? Is the focus here on human rights violations, or is it opposition to Israel?"
Furthermore, over 22,000 American Jewish citizens signed a "Letter in Hope" petition against divestment, with the petition sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Israel Action Network. The letter said that considering "the relationship between Jews and Christians that has been nurtured for decades," a vote for divestment would promote "a lopsided assessment of the causes of and solutions to the conflict, disregarding the complex history and geopolitics."
"For Jews, the use of economic leverages against the Jewish state is fraught with inescapable associations. They resonate in the Jewish consciousness with historic boycotts against Jewish companies and the State of Israel. They are experienced by Jews as part of a pattern of singling out Jews for attack. To determine and continue policies that knowingly tap into the deepest fears and pain of another is, in our tradition, a serious failure of relationship," the letter adds.
Voices from both sides presented solid arguments during the debate, leading to a largely divided General Assembly.
"The Palestinians aren't asking us for a check, sisters and brothers. The Palestinians are asking us for justice. They're asking us for dignity. How can you write a check to a people who don't control their own water?" asked Tim Simpson, a delegate from the Presbytery of St. Augustine in Jacksonville, Fla., who was in favor of divestment from Israel.
"What divestment will achieve is this: We will add a whisper soon lost in the storm, but we will further the divisions in our church when we have our own serious problems to address, and we will precipitate divisions with the synagogues within our communities whom we work with frequently on a variety of issues. This will be perceived as picking on Israel, and how could it not?" retorted Arthur Shippee, a delegate from southern New England.
Those in favor of divestment disappointed by the outcome of the vote said that the church commissioners voted the way they did because they were too afraid to harm Jewish-Christian relations.
"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," said the Rev. Katherine Cunningham, vice-moderator of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network.