LOUISVILLE - Led by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), an ecumenical group of 14 members of the House of Representatives has implored the Presbyterian Church (USA) to rescind its July decision to selectively divest from companies who profit from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories - describing the action as causing “terrible distress.”
The stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, responded in kind - citing “terrible distress” as well: The failure of the U.S. Congress to be a balanced arbiter for peace in the region or condemning the illegal expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
The two letters reflect the tensions and the opposing perspectives that characterize perhaps the most critical foreign policy and inter-faith issue on both political and religious agendas: How to achieve lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, with two states living side-by-side with secure borders?
Top-level Jewish and Presbyterian leaders will gather Sept. 28 in New York City to begin tackling that conversation fresh in the aftermath of the PC(USA)’s July action and subsequent Jewish outrage.
In his response, Kirkpatrick invites the 14 members of Congress who are disturbed the PC(USA)’s action into dialogue and has asked the Presbyterian Washington Office to contact their Congressional staff to make the necessary arrangements.
“I am encouraged by your assurance that you seek a peaceful and just solution to the conflict in the Middle East. Since we obviously hope that the other’s institutions (Congress for the Presbyterian General Assembly) might change their actions,” he wrote.
The signatories to the letter include three of the 52 Presbyterians in the Congress, Reps. Tom Feeney (R-FL), John Lindner (R-GA) and Deborah Pryce (R-OH).
There are five Jewish signatories, including Berman. They are Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Eric Cantor (R-VA), Barney Frank (D-MA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA).
A spokesperson for Berman’s office told the Presbyterian News Service that Berman did not discuss the PC(USA)’s divestment action with church officials, but drafted his letter based on the documents produced by the General Assembly.
The church’s decision selectively targets specific companies profiting from the occupation. The PC(USA)’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) monitors the social responsibility of the denomination’s investments, a practice that dates back to 1971. Its goal is to not divest, but to use dialogue, shareholder resolutions and public pressure to persuade corporations to change business practices that inflict harm on the innocent, according to Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, the denomination’s chief divestment researcher.
Divestment is only a last resort, an admission that a corporation is unwilling to reform its practices.
According to Somplatsky-Jarman, companies will be targeted according to investments in the PC(USA)’s $8 billion portfolio and PC(USA) policy. The denomination has long opposed Israel’s settlement expansion, the uprooting of orchards and the demolition of homes by its military, and, most recently, the construction of a barrier that separates Israel and the occupied territories. Part razor-wire fence and part 25-foot concrete wall, the barrier cuts deep into land that has not yet been formally negotiated.
The two letters reflect, however, reflect not only the polarity of perspectives in this debate, but its high emotional content.
The Congressional leaders write: “We believe very strongly that the efforts of the Church to divest from companies doing business in Israel - thus penalizing Israel for acting in its own self-defense - are irresponsible, counterproductive, and morally bankrupt. Rather than contributing to peace, this approach will only provide encouragement for those that seek to de-legitimize the very existence of the Jewish State.”
Kirkpatrick replies: “It has been very disappointing to us that the U.S. Congress has not proven to be an ally or a balanced arbiter in the negotiations for peace in the region. While Congress has passed repeated statements against the Palestinian Authority, it has never passed a resolution condemning the continuous illegal construction of settlements in the West Bank. There has been nothing done by Congress to pressure Israel to adhere to international law. Rather, Israel has been encouraged by Congress to violate international law. The recent passage of House Resolution 713, which condemns the International Court of Justice and supports a wall that is in blatant violation of international law, is one case in point.”
On the separation wall, the Congressional leaders write: “In condemning the security fence, for extending into the West Bank, the Church ignores U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which explicitly acknowledged Israel’s right to secure and defensible borders, as well as the Church’s stated commitment - reaffirmed in its resolution on the fence - to Israel’s right to exist within “secure” borders. Nearly every blueprint for peace - including the flawed Geneva Accord endorsed by the Church - envisions modifications to the 1967 lines, including the Israeli annexation of large settlement blocs. To argue that Israel somehow forfeits its inherent right of self-defense unless it retreats to those insecure and indefensible borders is a strange reading of history and recent events.”
The letter also argues that the barrier - completed in the northern section of the West Bank - has stopped Palestinian terrorists from infiltrating Israel from Jenin and Tulkarem, the sources of many previous bombers. A similar fence around Gaza, it argues, has been nearly 100 percent effective in stopping would-be attackers.
Kirkpatrick replies: “While the Israeli government claims it is building the “separation barrier” between Israel and the West Bank, only a small percent will be on the Green Line, Israel’s 1967 border. The rest stretches into the West Bank, isolates huge amounts of land and affects the lives of many thousands of Palestinians. This year, some 210,000 people will be economically and socially cut off from their neighborhoods. The route of the wall has been determined not by security, but by the political goals of maintaining the settlements and impacting future peace talks. (A wall built along the Green Line would be half the length of the current wall and much easier to patrol.)”
Kirkpatrick also says that the current wall ghettoizes Palestinians and forces them onto what can only be called reservations. “A just and lasting peace will only be achieved when BOTH people are able to live within secure borders. A wall imposed by Israel on the Palestinians, while maintaining the right to invade at any time, does not advance that goal.”
About security, the Congressional leaders write: “As long as Palestinians and their extremist allies continue to seek the destruction of Israel, then the Government of Israel has a fundamental obligation - as do all democratically elected governments - to provide security for the Israeli people. Unlike the U.N. peacekeeping force advocated by the Church in its divestment resolution, the fence will provide real physical security and - because Israel will have the ability to redeploy its forces from much of the West Bank when it is complete - will help create the conditions necessary for a two state solution in which the legitimate aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians can be satisfied.”
Kirkpatrick answers: “The unconditional support of Israel and Prime Minister Sharon, while the continuous assaults on Palestinians and their leadership by the Israeli army are broadcast all over the world, does nothing to protect our security as a nation. It also does nothing to bring the security so needed to Israel. It is the occupation, not our move to consider divestment that threatens the existence of Israel. The 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin a process that might lead to divestment from companies profiting from the occupation because there is a strong feeling among many people, and most likely many people in your district, that the occupation needs to end in order that all people - Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans - can live in peace and security.”
Other lawmakers who signed the Berman letter include House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), as well as Reps. Mark Kirk (R-IL), John Lewis (D-GA), Linda Sanchez (D-CA) and Lamar Smith (R-FL).
Kirkpatrick told the Presbyterian News Service that non-Presbyterians keep pressuring the clerk to alter a decision that is out of his hands.
“The clerk can’t change this,” he said, noting that changing this decision would require action by the 2006 General Assembly, the body that will, ultimately vote on whatever divestment recommendations MRTI identifies.
He urged Presbyterians in Congress who want to alter these decisions to use church channels, by having sessions propose overtures to presbyteries, and then, onto the General Assembly for consideration and debate.