The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted yesterday to back off from a decision it made two years ago to pursue divestment from companies that profit from Israel's
involvement in the Palestinian territories.
The resolution, passed overwhelmingly at the church's general assembly in Birmingham, Ala., responded to outcries by some church members and Jews who accused the church of insensitivity to Israel. The resolution apologized for "the pain that this has caused" among "many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion."
Church leaders said it still permitted divestment as a "last resort," but emphasized positive, not punitive, steps the church can take to support Middle East peace efforts.
The church also sought to reassure Palestinians by including in the resolution a call for an end to Israel's involvement in Gaza and the West Bank, along with criticism of the Israeli security wall where it encroaches on Palestinian territory and "fails to follow the legally recognized borders of Israel" before the 1967 war.
"The resolution makes clear that we're not targeting Israel, we're not abandoning our commitment to peacemaking, we're not abandoning the Palestinian Christians," said Jay Rock, coordinator for interfaith relations.
The Presbyterian Church never reached the point of divesting from companies that it said provided military equipment or technology for Israel to use in the territories. Church officials had begun to press four corporations - Caterpillar, ITT, Motorola and United Technologies. Divesting would have required a vote by the entire general assembly, which meets every two years.
Yesterday, the church's Peacemaking and International Issues Committee drafted the resolution after nearly 12 hours of testimony from church members and three invited guests, an American Jew, an American Muslim and a Palestinian Christian.
After a brief debate, the general assembly adopted the resolution, 483 to 28. The compromise mollified some Jewish leaders, who sent several representatives to lobby delegates.
"The divestment policy was a one-sided policy that focused only on the bad acts of Israel," said Mark J. Pelavin, director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism, a Jewish leader who spoke to the panel. "One of the criticisms last time was they didn't hear American Jewish voices at all. To their credit, they reached out this time."
The national director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Salam al-Marayati, invited to represent a Muslim viewpoint, said he was disappointed at the retreat from divestment, because it was a nonviolent strategy to put pressure on Israel.
But Mr. Marayati said of the Presbyterians, "There's still a commitment to opposing the occupation, and I think that's the most important thing."
Mr. Pelavin and Mr. Marayati said they were pleased over the support for a "politically viable and secure Palestinian state alongside an equally viable and secure Israeli state, both of which have a right to exist."
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with 2.3 million members, has close ties to Palestinian Christians and has long used divestment to communicate foreign policy positions.
The divestment vote in 2004 hurt relationships with many Jewish organizations that had long been allies on causes like civil liberties and the separation of church and state.
"Our relationships with our Jewish friends were severely strained," said James D. Berkley, director of Presbyterian Action, a conservative group affiliated with the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington. "We had congregations that had spent years making excellent relationships with local temples, and rabbis and pastors that were good friends. And suddenly, the rabbis were calling up and saying, 'What has the church done? I thought you were our friends.' "
The action on divestment prompted other Protestant churches to consider similar steps. The World Council of Churches urged its member churches last year to give serious consideration to divesting funds from Israel. The Church of England voted for divestment in February. But few others have followed suit.
Two years ago, divestment was a sleeper issue at the Presbyterian general assembly, passing without much controversy.
This time, opponents mounted a campaign. They put up a billboard on the highway from the airport to the convention center saying, "Divestment is not the way to peace."
They invited a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, R. James Woolsey, a Presbyterian layman, to speak, and he said the divestment policy put the church "clearly on the side of theocratic, totalitarian, anti-Semitic, genocidal beliefs."
Advocates of divestment, including some American Jews and Israelis, worked the conference hallways. Jewish Voice for Peace, a liberal group, set up a table at the conference center and showed a documentary on Israeli military resisters, said a member, Judith Kolokoff of Seattle.
In the end, many delegates who spoke during the final debate said they saw the resolution as fair and even-handed.