For much of the last decade, international anti-Israel activists have targeted U.S. mainline Protestant denominations with pleas for divesting from firms doing business with Israel. There was reason: Official mainline Protestantism, pro-Israel during Israel's early decades, became sharply anti-Israel starting in the 1970s. Influenced by liberation theology, liberal church elites understood Palestinians as oppressed Third World victims, and Israel as the Western imperialists, backed by America.
And although losing members since the 1960s, mainline Protestant denominations still have billions of dollars in endowments and pension funds. They made for a juicy target by very focused anti-Israel activists.
But the church divestment campaign seems to have ended, at least for now, in defeat.
One deputy (delegate) from California pointed to the "courage of the prophets" when urging the convention to back divestment. But her pleas failed. Episcopal Church presiding bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori herself rejected anti-divestment in a speech earlier this year, almost ensuring that divestment had little chance among Episcopalians.
But the battle among the Presbyterians last week was close. On July 5, the governing general assembly of the 1.9 million member Presbyterian Church (USA), rejected divestment by a close vote, 333-331, in favor of "positive investment" in the Palestinian economy. Other than the brief and deeply controversial Presbyterian support for divestment between 2004 and 2006, it's the closest the divestment movement has attained and possibly their last chance for a while.
The United Methodist Church, at its governing general conference in April-May, rejected divestment by 2-1, despite intense onsite lobbying by dozens of activists from around the world. Other mainline denominations like the United Church of Christ, which toyed with the idea, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have declined to divest.
It's not for lack of trying by divestment enthusiasts. At the Presbyterian gathering in Pittsburgh, young pro-divestment Jews flocked to committee hearings and demonstrated outside the convention center bearing signs proclaiming: "I Am A Young Jew and I Support Divestment." They contrasted with older rabbis who testified against it, creating the impression of a generational divide. The legislative committee backed divestment by 3 to 1. At issue was about $17 million of church investments in 3 firms that divestment activists claim profit from the "occupation:" Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard.
On the day of the vote, coincidentally, Rabbi Gil Rosenthal of the National Council of Synagogues was scheduled to present brief ecumenical greetings to the General Assembly. "It will embattle Israel and embolden those who would like to delegitimize it and destroy it," the rabbi declared of divestment, turning a typically pro-forma welcome into a stern warning. "Make no mistake that is the goal of many in that region," citing Hamas's official desire to "destroy the Zionist entity." And he further warned: "I fear sincerely that divestment would cast a pall and fracture relationships - perhaps irreparably [between Jews and Presbyterians]."
In his very different interfaith greeting, Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America thanked Presbyterians for their "alliance" with Muslims against intolerance and for their helpful attention to Middle East justice. "Your advocacy and your unflinching support for an equitable and dignified solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem has inspired with hope those who live otherwise in despondency," he declared.
Church officials told the general assembly that divestment was an example of "tough love" and that "Middle East churches have implored us to help end the occupation." Divestment was "in no way meant to express condemnation of Israel," to "end our historically positive relationship with the Jewish community," or to "isolate or delegitimize Israel." One convention delegate (delegates are called "commissioners") complained that Rabbi Rosenthal's greeting earlier had "crossed the line into advocacy," though there were no complaints about Syeed’s remarks.
A minority report from the pro-divestment legislative committee argued that the church's "criticism for many years [of Israel] had had no effect," and that divestment would only generate "notoriety and controversy." It instead urged a policy of "positive investment" to strengthen the Palestinian economy. A hostile delegate countered that "Palestinians aren't asking us for a check, they're asking us for justice." Another delegate pleaded that many Presbyterians "couldn't sleep at night knowing our [pensions funds] support such oppression." Still another accused Israel of "ethnic cleansing."
An anti-divestment delegate noted that Israelis are "daily terrorized by neighbors who seek to eliminate them from the face of the earth." And a former top officer of the denomination, having supported divestment in past years, described her new opposition, urging: "Never forget thousands of years of hatred and destruction against the Jewish people."
After the 333-331 vote against divestment, the assembly voted 55 percent to 43 percent to affirm positive investment. One angry activist in the audience shouted, "No!" But most seemed relieved the debate was over.
So maybe the divestment movement has crested and will recede among America's churches, having failed to achieve a single major sustained success. But bias against Israel almost certainly will persist in many denominational policy stances. The Presbyterians did reject a proposed comparison of Israel to Apartheid South Africa. But, like the United Methodists, they endorsed a symbolic boycott of goods produced by Israeli settlements on the West Bank. And the Presbyterians, before debating divestment, voted by over 80 percent to oppose any military strike against Iran's nuclear weapons program.