UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey
Middle East Divestment Defeated
The Rev. We Hyun Chang, a delegate from the New England Annual (regional) Conference, holds a map illustrating Israeli expansion into the West Bank during the May 2 session. Chang presented a motion favoring divestment from corporations profiting from the Israeli settlement of occupied Palestinian territories. The petition was defeated.
Petition targeted Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola Solutions for role of their products in Israeli occupation
TAMPA, Fla. (UMNS) — Delegates to The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly approved a petition condemning Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, but overwhelmingly defeated a measure to divest from specific U.S. companies profiting from the occupation.
Delegates … overwhelmingly defeated a measure to divest from specific U.S. companies profiting from the occupation.
Delegates instead approved a report calling on the United Methodist General Board of Pension & Health Benefits (GBPHB) to explore “serious peace-making strategies in Israel and Palestine, including positive economic and financial investment in Palestine.”
Delegates were lobbied heavily on the divestment question. Advocates decked out in bright yellow T-shirts passed out literature and sponsored luncheons for delegates. Jewish Voice for Peace sent several organizers to help in the effort.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, Anglican archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, wrote an article in The Tampa Tribune that compared the Israeli occupation to apartheid. He said divestment could be effective in Israel just as it was in South Africa. His article was circulated by the divestment proponents.
Dominated May 2 plenary
On the other hand, over 1,200 rabbis mailed a letter to the delegates before the conference convened that urged a vote against divestment. The rabbis, who represented most of the mainstream Jewish faith groups, argued that divestment “shamefully” positions Israel as a pariah, solely responsible for thwarting peace efforts.
The rabbis’ letter warned that a vote for divestment would damage the relationship between Jews and Christians.
The Israeli-Palestinian issue dominated the May 2 afternoon plenary at General Conference, a gathering of 990 delegates from around the world held every four years.
The petition advocated divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
The divestment petition originally was submitted to General Conference from the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society, and was endorsed by the General Board of Global Ministries. The petition was combined with similar petitions from six annual conferences: Baltimore-Washington, California-Pacific, Minnesota, New England Northern Illinois and West Ohio.
The petition advocated divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions because they provide products used by the Israeli military in the occupation of Palestinian lands.
· Caterpillar supplies bulldozers and earth-moving equipment used by Israel Defense Forces to clear Palestinian homes and orchard.
· Hewlett-Packard biometric monitoring equipment is employed at checkpoints.
· Motorola Solutions supplies surveillance equipment to illegal settlements in the West Bank and communications equipment to the occupation forces.
Positive not punitive options
General Conference’s Finance & Administration Committee instead substituted language urging “positive, rather than punitive options,” said Jessica Vargo, East Ohio delegate and committee chairperson, who presented the committee’s report to the plenary.
The committee’s approved version asked United Methodist general agencies and boards to ask companies to adopt “United Nations Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights” and to consider economic sanctions with companies that refuse.
Vargo pointed out that the committee’s petition did not mean divestment from companies would not be considered. Rather, the petition placed the decision to divest into the hands of GBPHB, as has been historically done, not General Conference, according to her.
A minority report brought the divestment issue to the plenary. Those opposed to the committee’s recommendation said it did not go far enough in helping end the struggles of the Palestinian people. They emphasized that past efforts encouraging companies to change behavior had not worked.
Arguments for change
Robert Lee, 19, a student at Appalachia State University, Boone, N.C., and a delegate from the Western North Carolina Conference, said he was moved by stories about those injured or killed when Palestinian homes were bulldozed to make way for settlement building. “If we’re trying to show this is a conference of change, it’s time to put our money where our mouth is,” he said, advocating for divestment.
Sarah Ann Swenson, a delegate from Minnesota, said lack of concrete action on the issue is one reason “people between the ages of 18 and 21 are missing” from The United Methodist Church. She declared that these young adults see the church as “small-minded and hypocritical.”
“This petition is devoid of any possible way to put our dollars to good work,” Swenson said. “If we can’t take action, let’s at least stop hiding behind pretty rhetoric.”
Opponents of divestment said targeting specific companies blames them for making the products, rather than citing the people who use the products. The opponents cautioned that divestment might set a precedent for doing the same to others based on a myriad of social issues.
Interestingly, delegates approved a petition immediately before the divestment vote that called for opposition to Israeli settlements on Palestinian land through nonviolent responses. The petition did not specify what those responses would be.
The issue of divestment has come up repeatedly in mainline Protestant denominations through the years. These denominations support hospitals, schools and humanitarian relief efforts in the occupied territories. They also send many Holy Land educational tours that often coordinate with Palestinian Christians.
The Presbyterian Church USA will vote on divestment at its general assembly, which begins June 30 in Pittsburgh. The denomination voted for divestment in 2004, then changed it mind two years later.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, recently came out against divestment and boycotts. Instead, she encouraged the denomination’s members 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.
Susanne Hoder, from New England Conference and a member of United Methodist Kairos Response, said that four annual conferences — Northern Illinois, California-Pacific, New York and West Ohio — have voted to divest their own investments. “We expect that more United Methodist conferences will do this,” she said.
“Though we did not get the decision we hoped for [at General Conference],” Hoder said, “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.”
The Rev. Tracy Smith Malone, chair of Church & Society Committee A from Northern Illinois Conference, also expressed encouragement amidst the disappointment. “I think we opened the eyes of delegates,” she said, “and now they will have conversations in their local churches and annual conferences about aligning investments with our values.
“I think our Christian friends in Palestine will hear we stood in solidarity with them. We could not have even had this conversation four years ago.”
Tita Parham is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in Apopka, Fla. She served as part of the United Methodist News Service team at General Conference 2012.
Wayne Rhodes is editor of Faith in Action, the newsletter of the General Board of Church and Society. This article is reprinted from the newsletter.