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Israel Divestment Campaigns Gain Momentum in U.S.

The U.S. Presbyterian Church’s debate over divesting from Caterpillar, a construction supply corporation that profits from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, shows considerable momentum for the BDS movement, opening up rifts between some Church members and pro-Israel allies.

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Inter Press Service

A resolution at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three corporations which provide equipment used to maintain Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands failed by a mere two votes on Thursday.

Yet despite this apparent setback, the movement to divest from such corporations has gained tremendous momentum in recent weeks.

On Jun. 25, Morgan Stanley Capital Index (MSCI) announced that it had removed the Caterpillar corporation from its index of socially responsible companies, due in part to the use of its equipment to violate the human rights of Palestinians in the West Bank.

As a result, the leading retirement assets management firm for workers in the academic, research, medical and cultural fields, TIAA-CREF divested from Caterpillar. Activists in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli occupation hailed this as a major victory, as TIAA-CREF had been the target of a divestment campaign for several years.

The TIAA-CREF decision raised hopes among pro-Palestinian activists that the Presbyterian Church (USA) would also choose to divest from three corporations – Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solution – which their Israel-Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) had identified as profiting from Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights.

If the Presbyterians passed a divestment resolution they would become the first mainstream Christian church body to do so.

But major Jewish institutions lobbied hard, as they have in previous years, to defeat the Presbyterian divestment initiative, and they succeeded, albeit by the narrowest of margins. The final vote was 333 against the resolution, 331 in favour and two abstentions.

The narrow margin of defeat, however, provided substantial encouragement to some BDS activists.

Rabbi Alissa Wise, director of Campaigns for Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a major national Jewish peace group which has spearheaded the campaigns to divest from Caterpillar and to engage both the Presbyterians and TIAA-CREF in that effort, said, “It’s too early to know what is going to happen, but I have been moved to tears on multiple occasions as I saw authentic recognition of Palestinian experience and deep commitment to justice for all people by the Presbyterian Church.

“This is a historic moment in the struggle for dignity and justice, and I commend the PC(USA) for getting us this close to holding corporations accountable for profiting from the occupation.”

Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director, said, “The recent divestment wins, and the incredibly thin margin of this vote, show that the discourse is shifting. The conversation was only about how to end the occupation, not whether or not it should end. This in and of itself is incredible progress.”

That progress was further demonstrated when the Presbyterians voted on Friday to “boycott products made in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories”.

While JVP prominently agitated in favour of divestment, a possibly decisive blow was dealt to the initiative by two other Jewish pro-peace groups, J Street and Americans for Peace Now.

Both groups came out strongly against divestment and both cautioned the Presbyterians that they believed such initiatives could lead to increased anti-Semitism around the world and that passage of the initiative could jeopardise, or even destroy, Presbyterian-Jewish relations in the United States.

“Divestment campaigns such as this therefore raise very real and understandable worries about global anti-Semitism and the perception that the campaigns are not truly (or only) about Israeli policies but rather reflect a deep-seated hatred for and rejection of Israel,” said Debra DeLee, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now.

J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, was equally direct: “If PCUSA disregards the voices of its Jewish allies in the quest for a two-state solution and votes to support divestment, it won’t bring a just peace any closer. It will merely lose the good will of many American Jews and further dissipate the energies we so desperately need to apply to the task at hand.”

Even more threatening were two rabbis, Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Alderstein of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. They stated that “it is almost beyond belief that as the ground literally burns beneath the Christian faithful in Egypt, Nigeria and Iraq that PCUSA stays fixated in aiding and abetting the de-legitimizing of Israel.

“All other mainline Christian denominations have either rejected or shelved divestment measures… A huge number of ordinary Presbyterians reject the actions of their church leadership. They enjoy a mutually warm and respectful relationship with Jewish friends. Those valued friendships will continue. But as far as PCUSA denominational leadership, the upcoming vote may bring us to the end of the road.”

Numerous groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, worked hard to defeat divestment at the GA, but despite their seeming success, the razor-thin margin of defeat could not have been encouraging for them.

“In the long-running Palestinian quest for human rights, it is important not to stop at individual victories or defeats … but to track long term trends,” said Nadia Hijab, co-founder of Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

“And those trends have definitely been moving in favour of Palestinian rights and against Israeli colonisation of the occupied territories and discrimination towards its Palestinian citizens as well as Palestinian refugees. Perhaps most significantly, Palestinian civil society has in recent years been able to define the terms of the struggle, forcing pro-Israel forces on the defensive and costing them millions.

“Although church organisations such as the United Methodists and the Presbyterians have not yet been able to bring themselves to divest from companies that support Israel’s occupation, they have been forced to respond to the flagrant illegality of the occupation by such measures as boycotts of goods produced in the illegal Israeli settlements.”

Mitchell Plitnick is a contributor to Inter Press Service.

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