Presbyterian Church approves divestment resolution

In a move that may affect interreligious relationships more than it does the bottom line, leaders of Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) voted at the church’s June 20 biennial general assembly in Detroit to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, all companies that do business with Israel, in a 310-303 decision.

“The good news is that despite efforts by anti-Israel extremists, voting members realized that divestment was part of the toxic boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and added amendments explicitly stating that PCUSA does not endorse global BDS,” said Roberta Seid, director of education-research for the Israel education group StandWithUs, who attended the Presbyterian assembly.

The authors of this study guide are from Presbyterian Church USA’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network.

“The bad news is that BDS has groomed a Presbyterian contingent which manipulates committee rules to hijack the agenda, skew the debate and silence alternative views. The committee barely heard about Palestinian terrorism or about Hamas,” she added.

The latest effort represents the third Presbyterian biennial in a row in which a pro-BDS resolution appeared at the denomination’s general assembly, as BDS supporters who make up part of PCUSA’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network have gained momentum following a narrow two-vote loss (333-331) for a boycott measure at the 2012 biennial.

Similar to past BDS resolutions, the current one called on the church to label Israel an “apartheid” nation, while calling for divestment from companies such as Motorola, Caterpillar, and Hewlett-Packard who “participate in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

Speaking to a Jerusalem gathering of more than 100 international Jewish journalists on June 22, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the resolution.

“When the Middle East is fragmented in this horrible war, this savage, savage war between militant Shiites and militant Sunnis … the only place where you have freedom, tolerance, protection of minorities, protection of gays, protection of Christians and all other faiths, is Israel,” Netanyahu said at the Jewish Media Summit.

Yitzhak Santis, chief programs officer and “BDS in the Pews” project director at the watchdog group NGO Monitor, said “a small minority of anti-Israel activists in the Presbyterian Church” are “partnered with the global BDS campaign to demonize and delegitimize Israel.”

The network’s efforts inside the church culminated in its January release of a virulently anti-Israel document, “Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide.” The American Jewish Committee called it “a devastating distortion of Jewish and Israeli history, aimed at nothing less than eradicating the state of Israel.”

Some Presbyterian leaders have tried to gain a more balanced education. In February, a delegation of more than a dozen Presbyterian lay leaders visited SodaStream’s factory in the West Bank. It has been the target of BDS attacks, but the company is also touted as a model of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation since it employs nearly 500 Palestinian workers alongside Israelis.

Beyond the headlines, the influence of the resolution is debatable.

The Presbyterian Church USA has a membership of more than 1.9 million in 10,000-plus congregations, according to the church’s website. The latest figures released by PCUSA in 2012 indicate that membership has dramatically declined over the last half decade, with the loss of nearly 465,000 members between 2006 and 2012, a decline that has coincided with a growing push by anti-Israel members within PCUSA to have the church divest from Israel.

The “decision will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on relations between mainstream Jewish groups and the national Presbyterian Church (USA),” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said in a statement.

JTA contributed to this report.

Opinion by two local Presbyterian pastors against the divestment vote.