The divestment vote, at the Methodist Church’s convention in Tampa, Fla., followed intense lobbying by American Jews, Israelis and Palestinian Christians.
Published: May 2, 2012
The United Methodist Church, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, voted against two proposals on Wednesday to divest from companies that provide equipment used by Israel to enforce its control in the occupied territories.
The closely watched vote, at the church’s quadrennial convention in Tampa, Fla., came after months of intense lobbying by American Jews, Israelis and Palestinian Christians. After an afternoon of impassioned debate and several votes, the delegates overwhelmingly passed a more neutral resolution calling for “positive” investment to encourage economic development “in Palestine.”
However, the Methodists also passed a strongly worded resolution denouncing the Israeli occupation and the settlements, and calling for “all nations to prohibit the import of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.”
An international movement for “boycott, divestment and sanctions” has gained steam as the peace process in the Middle East has come to a virtual standstill, and allies of the Palestinians have argued that these strategies could pressure Israel to stop building settlements and return to the negotiating table.
The divestment question has come up repeatedly over the years in mainline Protestant churches, which have long cultivated relationships with Palestinian Christians and regularly send delegations to Israel and the occupied territories. These denominations support hospitals, schools and charities in the territories.
The Presbyterian Church USA will vote on a divestment measure at its general assembly, which begins on June 30 in Pittsburgh. (The Presbyterians voted for divestment in 2004, then backed off at their next general assembly two years later.)
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, recently came out against divestment and boycotts, and instead urged Episcopalians to invest in development projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination, rejected divestment in 2007 and 2011.
In Tampa, many delegates took to the floor to testify that they had traveled to the Holy Land and met with Palestinian Christians who were suffering and increasingly desperate for an end to the occupation. But in the end, they listened to some Jewish leaders and fellow Methodists who warned that divestment was a one-sided strategy that penalized only Israel.
The Rev. Alex Joyner, a Methodist pastor in Franktown, Va., and a member of an antidivestment caucus called United Methodists for Constructive Peacemaking in Israel and Palestine, said: “We are all concerned about the suffering and the ongoing occupation, because it is hurting Israeli and Palestinian society. But what the church has said is we want a positive step, and we reject punitive measures as a way of trying to bring peace.”
The Methodist delegates in Tampa, primarily occupied with proposals for church reorganization plans, were lobbied heavily on the divestment question. Divestment advocates dressed in bright yellow T-shirts passed out literature and sponsored free luncheons for delegates. Jewish Voice for Peace, a liberal American Jewish group that supports divestment, sent several organizers.
Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop emeritus of Cape Town and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, wrote an article in The Tampa Tribune likening the Israeli occupation to apartheid and saying that divestment could be as effective in Israel as it was in South Africa.
On the other side, more than 1,200 rabbis representing every stream of organized Judaism signed a letter, mailed to the delegates before the convention, beseeching them to vote against divestment. They argued that the tactic “shamefully paints Israel as a pariah nation, solely responsible for frustrating peace,” and said a vote for divestment would “damage the relationship between Jews and Christians.”
The divestment resolution called specifically for pulling investments in the church’s pension funds out of three companies: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
Advocates for divestment say that Caterpillar supplies the bulldozers and earth-moving equipment used by the Israel Defense Forces to clear Palestinian homes and orchards; that Hewlett-Packard provides, sometimes through subsidiaries, biometric monitoring at checkpoints and information technology to the Israeli Navy; and that Motorola supplies surveillance equipment to illegal settlements in the West Bank and communications equipment to the occupation forces.
In two separate votes, divestment was defeated by a 2-to-1 ratio. Susanne Hoder, a Methodist from Rhode Island and a spokeswoman for a group for divestment, the United Methodist Kairos Response, said: “Though we did not get the decision we hoped for, we have succeeded in raising awareness about the persecution of Palestinian Christians and Muslims. We have awakened the conscience of the churches and pointed out the inconsistency between our words and our actions.”
Ms. Hoder said that four geographic regions, or “annual conferences,” of the Methodist Church — Northern Illinois, California Pacific, New York and West Ohio — had already voted to pull out their own investments. “We expect that more United Methodist conferences will do this,” she said.