After a decade of heated debate, backtracking, and suspenseful votes, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has once again voted for divestment from three companies that do business with Israel. The controversial vote is sure to inspire debate between proponents of divestment, who argue that it is necessary in light of Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories, and opponents, who argue that divestment is one-sided, unhelpful, and driven by anti-Semitism.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) has a long history of flirtation with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement designed to place economic restrictions on the State of Israel. Back in 2004, the denomination voted in favor of divestment, but reversed itself two years later after an intense backlash. Since then, the PCUSA has considered divestment in every successive General Assembly. At the 2012 General Assembly held in Pittsburgh, divestment passed committee 36-11, but failed in the General Assembly by only two votes.
The vote Friday was almost extremely close. After a lengthy floor debate and amendment process, the measure, which called upon the PCUSA to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola passed by a vote of only 310-303. In addition to the divestment measures, Item 04-04 also reiterates PCUSA support for a two-state solution and the existence of Israel. As a concession to divestment opponents, language was added to clarify that the PCUSA is not aligned with nor endorses the strategy of the global BDS movement.
The General Assembly vote comes after days of debate and anticipation. On Tuesday, the Middle East Issues Committee voted 45-20 to approve Item 04-04, which ironically was originally a motion opposing divestment until it was amended by the committee. The Presbyterian Outlook reports that many on the committee raised concerns that the PCUSA would appear anti-Semitic or anti-Israel if it approved divestment. But the process was apparently marked by the “ceaseless intervention” of denominational staff and “outside speakers urging them to divest.”
“Jesus did not mind telling the Jews when they were wrong,” said the committee’s vice moderator. “So why are we so fearful?”
The moderator of the Middle East Issues Committee then took to the assembly floor Thursday morning to defend the committee’s decision. Rev. Stephen Choi told the elders that the divestment recommendation was only one of nine recommendations in Item 04-04 and came after “years and years of our church’s attempt to engage these corporations in dialogues to change their practices and products.” He reiterated that divestment from the three companies would not mean divestment from Israel as a whole.
A representative of the Jewish community also spoke, asking elders to reject the motion. Rabbi Rick Jacobs from the Union of Reform Judaism called divestment an attempt to delegitimatize the very existence of Israel the threatened the possibility of a two-state solution. He promised that if the motion was rejected, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, PCUSA General Assembly leaders, and himself would meet in Jerusalem to hold talks. “If you choose partnership over divestment and BDS,” he said, “together we can change the world.”
A more positive development in Jewish-PCUSA relations was the passage of Item 04-10, which declares that the controversial PCUSA study guide Zionism Unsettled “does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)…” Zionism Unsettled was denounced by Jewish groups for its “biased hostility” to Israel, for portraying Israel as the sole instigator of all the problems in the Middle East and for accusing the nation of ethnic cleansing. Item 04-10 passed the Middle East Issues committee by a vote of 54-8 and passed the General Assembly via consent agenda, a process reserved for uncontroversial items.
On Thursday, the General Assembly voted to allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages where legal.“By overturning natural marriage the PCUSA is only accelerating its already fast-paced demise,” IRD president Mark Tooley said in response to that vote.