Threat to Divest Is Church Tool in Israeli Fight

From the archive (legacy material)

LAURIE GOODSTEIN | The New York Times, Page One of Print Edition | 6 August 2005

The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. announced Friday that it would press four American corporations to stop providing military equipment and technology to Israel for use in the occupation of the Palestinian territories, and that if the companies did not comply, the church would take a vote to divest its stock in them.
The companies – Caterpillar, Motorola, ITT Industries and United Technologies – were selected from a list of several dozen possibilities by a church investment committee that met Friday in Seattle. The Presbyterians accused these companies of selling helicopters, cellphones, night vision equipment and other items Israel uses to enforce its occupation.
In an effort to appear even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the church committee also included Citigroup on its list of targets, alleging it had a connection to a bank accused of having a role in funneling money from Islamic charities to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. The church said it included Citigroup because it was
mentioned in an article in The Wall Street Journal.
A spokeswoman for Citigroup called the church’s assertion “an outrage,” a reaction echoed at several of the other corporations.
The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is in the forefront of a campaign now spreading to other mainline Protestant churches to use corporate divestment as a tactic in the Middle East conflict, a tactic that is roiling relations with Jewish groups.
The Episcopal Church U.S.A., the United Church of Christ, two regions of the United Methodist Church, as well as international groups like the World Council of Churches and the Anglican Consultative Council have all urged consideration of divestment or economic pressure in recent months, though the tone and emphasis of each resolution varies. The Disciples of Christ passed a resolution last month calling on Israel to tear down the barrier it has built to wall off the occupied territories, and other churches are considering similar resolutions.
Some Jewish groups accuse the churches of singling out Israel for blame and failing to address the Palestinians’ role in perpetuating the violence. Several have even said they see anti-Semitism behind the churches’ moves.
The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., said in an interview: “It’s not a campaign to divest from the state of Israel. We’re fully committed to the state of Israel. But it is a campaign to divest from particular activities that are doing damage and creating injustice and violence, whether that’s the building of the separation barrier, construction related to the occupation, or weapons and materials that lead to suicide bombings.”
Many American churches used divestment in the 1980’s to pressure the South African government to end apartheid. But applying the tactic to Israel has alarmed many American Jewish groups and caused a breach in what has been a long-term alliance between Jews and mainline Protestant churches, like the Presbyterians, that have leaned politically liberal. In decades past, Jewish and Protestant groups have worked together on a range of social issues, from racism to global poverty to women’s rights.
“This is a brilliantly organized political campaign to hurt Israel, and it’s not going to help a single Palestinian,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish watchdog group based in Los Angeles. “When you look at the list of companies, this is basically a recipe for Israel to disarm.”
Rabbi Cooper said the Protestant churches were ignoring the current “reality on the ground” – that Israel is preparing to withdraw this month from Gaza and remove settlements there. “Instead of divesting, these churches should be investing,” he said. “There is so much humanitarian need on the ground in the Holy Land. We’re not telling them: ‘Stay out of it. It’s not your business.’ There’s a ton of work to be done.”
He called the churches’ actions “functionally anti-Semitic.” But he said that after attending the conventions of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ this year, he concluded that the resolutions were being “rammed through” by denominational leaders and were not reflective of the churches’ grassroots membership.
However, David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs in the United States for the American Jewish Committee, said that he made a distinction between the different church resolutions. He said he found the Presbyterian Church’s resolution “morally reprehensible” because it singled out Israel for blame, but that the United Church of Christ had been more evenhanded, condemning violence in the Middle East no matter the source.
The Presbyterian Church owns hundreds of thousands of shares of stock in the five companies through its pension fund for retired church workers and through church foundations. It did not say how much money it has invested in these companies, but judging by the numbers of shares it said it owns, the church’s investment in the companies totals about $60 million in holdings.
The Presbyterian Church’s committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment has brought similar economic pressure against other companies accused of abetting human rights abuses in countries like China, the Sudan, Myanmar, Nigeria and Guatemala. But church staff members said this was the first time it had focused on companies doing business in Israel.
The Presbyterians gave a variety of reasons for choosing these five companies. It accused Caterpillar of selling Israel heavy equipment used for demolishing Palestinian homes, and of constructing roads and infrastructure in the occupied territories and Israeli settlements.
The company released a statement saying: “For the past four years, activists have wrongly included Caterpillar in a publicity campaign aimed at advancing their much larger political agendas. Over that same period of time we’ve repeatedly evaluated our position, as have our shareholders, and determined that while the protests occasionally succeed in getting headlines, they neither change the facts nor our position.”
The Presbyterian committee said in its announcement that it included United Technologies Corporation, a military contractor, because a subsidiary provides helicopters used by the Israeli military “in attacks in the occupied territories against suspected Palestinian terrorists.”
A company spokesman, Paul Jackson, responded by e-mail: “UTC has been widely recognized as an ethical and responsible corporation. Work on military programs is stringently regulated by the U.S. government, and UTC complies wholly with all policies and related regulations.”
The church said it identified Motorola because the company has a contract to develop wireless encrypted communications for the Israeli military in the territories and is a “majority investor in one of Israel’s four cell phone companies.”
Norman Sandler, a manager for Motorola on global issues, said the church’s action “came completely out of the blue.” He said the company supplies radio products to Israel, as well as to many Arab countries.
ITT also made the church’s list because, the committee said, it supplies the Israeli military with “communications, electronic and night vision equipment used by its forces in the occupied territories.” A spokesman for ITT did not respond to a message left on Friday afternoon.
Leah Johnson, a spokeswoman for Citigroup, said: “Any assertion that Citigroup supports terrorism in any way is an outrage. We take all possible measures to ensure that our institution is not used by criminals or as a conduit to fund terrorist activities.”
Despite the bitterness the divestment moves have evoked among Jewish organizations, Christian and Jewish leaders alike said these developments had prompted intensive and productive dialogue sessions both at the national level and between “hundreds” of churches and synagogues nationwide.
A delegation of prominent Jewish and Christian leaders is set to travel to Jerusalem in September.