This evening in Detroit, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA approved divestment from three companies which do business with Israel–Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar, and Motorola Solutions–on the grounds that their products abet the Israeli occupation. The motion passed narrowly 310-303. An amendment stating that the Church was not divesting from Israel, only these U.S.-based companies, was added in a last-minute attempt to disassociate the move from the controversial Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, despite the fact that BDS activists were instrumental in drafting and lobbying for the resolution. An amendment to reinvest the divested funds in Israeli companies engaged in “peaceful solutions” was rejected, and the Assembly also approved a resolution calling for the reexamination of the Church’s support for the two-state solution, by a tally of 482-88.
The vote in favor of divestment was not unexpected, as the move was defeated by only two votes, 333-331, at the 2012 General Assembly. Unsurprisingly, the debate leading up to this year’s vote was heated. To many Presbyterians and Jews, it was also deeply troubling. Earlier this week, one longtime Israel boycott activist in the Church, Presbyterian minister Larry Grimm, told Jews to leave Israel and that America was really their “Promised Land.” At the General Assembly itself, a shocked Presbyterian blogger reported that during prayers, Virginia Sheets, the vice moderator of the Middle East issues committee, “suggested that Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell the Jews when they were wrong.” Zionism Unsettled, the pamphlet assembled by divestment activists to press their case, labeled Zionism as racism and drew strong condemnation from prominent Presbyterian leaders, who noted that it had been endorsed by the notorious white supremacist David Duke, who praised its usage of racist terminology he originally coined. (The DVD accompanying the booklet also claimed that Jews fabricated their connection to Jerusalem for political purposes.) An anonymous Twitter account set up by divestment activists even attempted to smear a Jewish Israel advocate in attendance at the General Assembly for “mocking” Presbyterian hymns. (Video showed otherwise.)
On the ground in the Detroit, the divestment motion faced wall-to-wall opposition from Jewish groups, from the American Jewish Committee to J Street, capped by an impassioned personal address from Reform Movement head Rabbi Rick Jacobs. In light of the subsequent vote for divestment, it seems likely that Jewish-Presbyterian interfaith relations will not recover for some time. Given how many Presbyterians and their leaders at the Assembly voted against the measure, however, and how many rank-and-file members of the 1.8 million-strong church had little say in this vote, individual and local ties will no doubt persist, even as institutional ones become strained.
Whether the limited divestment measure itself will have any political or economic impact remains to be seen. Many activists hope that the Presbyterian move will set a precedent for further divestment initiatives in other churches and institutions. But critics are skeptical, and liken the vote to the Israel boycott of the American Studies Association, which evoked widespread condemnation and turned the ASA into the “pariah of the United States higher-education establishment,” in the words of the New York Times. Others, like Haaretz economics editor David Rosenberg, have argued at length that the financial impact of such moves has been negligible, and will continue to be.