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On the Presbyterian conversation about divestment from Caterpillar et al.

27939I've seen some concern lately in the Jewish community about the conversation which some of our Christian cousins -- specifically the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA) -- are having about divestment and Israel. I think it's possible that some of the concern comes from lack of clarity about what the Presbyterians are actually discussing.

The Presbyterian church is not talking about divesting from Israel. (Indeed: one cannot divest from a country, only from a corporation.) They're considering withdrawing their church investments from three American-based multinational companies which make certain kinds of equipment used by the military.

Here's a link to the report which lays out their recommendations. And, from that report, here are their reasons for suggesting divestment from these three companies, in brief:

  • Caterpillar sells heavy equipment (e.g. the armored IDF Caterpillar D9) used by the Israeli government in military and police actions to demolish Palestinian homes and agricultural lands. (See On the Tent of Nations, destruction of orchards, and the path to peace.) It also sells heavy equipment used in the West Bank for construction of, among other things, settlements, roads which are solely open to settlers, and the construction of the Separation Barrier.
  • Hewlett-Packard sells hardware to the Israeli Navy, including Electronic Data Systems which provide biometric ID used to monitor Palestinians (and not used to monitor Israelis) at several checkpoints in the West Bank and in the separate Palestinian road system.
  • Motorola sells an integrated communications system, known as "Mountain Rose," to the Israeli government which uses it for military communications. They also provide equipment for the IDF, including ruggedized smartphones, and have signed a contract to provide the next generation of this technology to the IDF.

The conversation about divestment comes from the church's Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (CMRTI), a denominational committee which works to ensure that their investments are aligned with their stated religious values. The Presbyterian Church has an official policy of only investing in businesses which are pursuing peaceful endeavors.

The PCUSA has made these sorts of decisions before. Early in the church's history they withdrew investments from companies which produce alcohol. In 1980, they began withdrawing investments from corporations involved in military production. As one Presbyterian writes, PCUSA's "social witness policy prohibits [us] from investing in industries that harm people. We do not, for example, invest in gambling, firearms, pornography, and alcohol." I can understand why the CMRTI thinks that if their church seeks to only invest in businesses which do the work of peace, these corporations are not a fitting place for their investments.

Some of the Jewish critique of the church's process seeks to make the case that focusing divestment and other economic attention on what happens in Israel is inappropriate if equal attention isn't also paid to other places. But to me it makes perfect sense that the church would pay attention to "the Holy Land." It's easy for us, as Jews, to forget that Christians have a two-thousand-year-old attachment to this place. Don't we all pay attention to places which are emotionally and spiritually meaningful to us?

It may also be noteworthy that the PCUSA's investing agencies continue to hold stock in companies which do business in Israel, among them Intel, Oracle, Coca‐Cola, Procter & Gamble, IBM, Microsoft, McDonald's and American Express. (And that they have chosen at various times to withdraw investments from companies which did business in South Africa, Burma, and Sudan -- companies doing business in Israel are not the only subjects of their attention.) They're considering withdrawing their investments specifically from these three companies which produce implements used in a militarized or militaristic manner -- not from Israeli businesses or from other businesses working in Israel.

I don't imagine that any of these corporations would be substantially impacted by the removal of the PCUSA's funds. The divestment from Caterpillar et al. would be merely symbolic. But religous institutions frequently work in the realm of the "merely symbolic," and I can understand how this gesture could be meaningful -- both to members of this church, and to my friends who are working toward a just and lasting peace.

When I hear the anxiety from sectors of the Jewish community which oppose this divestment, I hear fear that this divestment proposal is thinly-veiled antisemitism; that it delegitimizes Israel; and that its passage will lead to further anti-Israel feeling. I see the situation differently. To me, what "delegitimizes" Israel is the injustices of the occupation, and I don't think it's appropriate to try to shame the Presbyterians into continuing to invest in corporations which do work they deem unethical.

The prophet Isaiah -- author of a holy text shared by Jews and Christians, though we sometimes interpret it in different ways -- speaks of the day when we will beat our guns into plowshares. (Some artists are taking that call to heart even now, turning guns into religious art, or into musical instruments.) Choosing not to invest in companies which make implements of war -- whether they be guns, or military communications systems -- is one way of embracing that prophetic vision of peace.