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June 26, 2006
Semantics and Semitics: Presbyterian Church Investment to Focus on Israeli-Palestinian Peace
    by Bill Baue

A recommendation approved by the church General Assembly apologizes to Jews and refines language while reaffirming commitment to corporate engagement with divestment as last resort.


In Birmingham, Alabama last Wednesday, the 217th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) voted 483 to 28 (with one abstention) in favor of a revision to the resolution regarding Israel-related investment adopted at the 216th General Assembly in 2004. This resolution originally called for initiating phased, selective divestment--PCUSA's standard process for corporate engagement by its Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee--from companies operating in Israel, due to Israel’s occupation of land claimed by Palestine. The revised version significantly shifts the semantics of the resolution, starting with an apology for the strife caused by the 2004 resolution. The strife included accusations that PCUSA is anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, and pro-terrorism.

"We acknowledge that the actions of the 216th General Assembly caused hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian community," states the resolution. "We are grieved by the pain that this has caused, accept responsibility for the flaws in our process, and ask for a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue."

Most significantly, the revision replaces the section calling for phased selective divestment with a more explicitly balanced statement and a more nuanced explanation.

"To urge that financial investments of the Presbyterian Church (USA), as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, be invested in only peaceful pursuits, and affirm that the customary corporate engagement process of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment of our denomination is the proper vehicle for achieving this goal," the resolution recommends.

The semantic changes in the revised resolution achieve two primary ends. First, they shift to a neutral framing of the political situation that refrains from placing primary accountability on either Israel or Palestine. And second, the revision reaffirms phased selective divestment as MRTI's standard procedure, rebuffing an alternate resolution seeking to repeal and rescind the 2004 resolution's call for employing this process. MRTI has used this process successfully since its 1984 inception to address South African apartheid, and since then on other issues ranging from human rights violations to climate change.

"We believe that this new statement clarifies the engagement process, which has not yet led to any recommendation for divestment," said Reverend Gretchen Graf, moderator of PCUSA's Peacemaking and International Issues committee. This committee, which considered more than 20 overtures from Presbyteries around the country both supporting and opposing the 2004 resolution, drafted the compromise overture and approved it by a vote of 53 to six on Saturday to send it to the General Assembly. "Our intent is to engage corporations, not to divest."

MRTI is currently engaging five companies regarding how their operations impact Israel and Palestine: Caterpillar (ticker: CAT), Citigroup (C), ITT (ITT), Motorola (MOT), and United Technologies (UTX). Any divestment decisions must be made by the General Assembly, and so could not happen until the next GA meeting in 2008.

In many ways, the controversy created by the 2004 resolution serves as a microcosm for the controversy, and misunderstanding, surrounding socially responsible investing (SRI) in general. Many mistakenly view divestment or negative screening as the primary purpose of SRI, while in reality the primary purpose is to align investments with personal or institutional values, which most often encompass various visions of social justice, environmental stewardship, and fair governance. Divestment is almost always viewed as a last resort, when corporations refuse to respond to engagement through compromise.

The revised resolution includes a number of provisions clarifying PCUSA's position. First, it instructs MRTI to conduct its corporate engagement process in a way that will "reflect commitment to positive outcomes." It also calls upon PCUSA as a whole to work with all impacted communities--American and Israeli Jews, and American and Palestinian Muslims and Christians--on a series of commitments, including:

--"...an end to all violence and terror against Palestinian and Israeli citizens."

--"...to end the occupation."

--and "...the creation of a socially, economically, geographically, and politically viable and secure Palestinian state, alongside an equally viable and secure Israeli state, both of which have a right to exist."

This language helped clarify the context in which the MRTI committee is engaging corporations, responding (to the degree possible) to concerns expressed on all sides of the issues. For example, James Woolsey, a Presbyterian and former Central Intelligence Agency director, characterized PCUSA's posture under the 2004 resolution as "clearly on the side of theocratic, anti-Semitic, genocidal beliefs..." On the other end of the spectrum, Reverend Donald Wagner, director for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University in Chicago, characterized the Israeli occupation of lands claimed by Palestine as "worse than apartheid."

 

 
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