The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Friday became the most prominent religious group in the United States to endorse divestment as a protest against Israeli policies toward Palestinians, voting to sell church stock in three companies whose products Israel uses in the occupied territories.
The General Assembly voted by a razor-thin margin — 310-303 — to sell stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. Two years ago, the General Assembly rejected a similar divestment proposal by two votes.
The American Jewish Committee, a policy and advocacy group based in New York, said the vote was “driven by hatred of Israel.” But Heath Rada, moderator for the church meeting, said immediately after the vote that “in no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
The decision is expected to reverberate beyond the 1.8 million-member church. It comes amid discouragement over failed peace talks that have left activists desperate for some way to affect change and as the broader movement known as BDS — or boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel — has gained some momentum in the U.S., Israel’s closest and most important ally.
Presbyterians who advocated for divestment insisted their action was not part of the broader boycott movement. Israeli officials, along with many American Jewish groups, denounced the campaign as an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state. Separately, the assembly also voted to re-examine its support for a two-state solution.
In a statement on its Facebook page, the Israeli Embassy in Washington denounced the resolution as “shameful.”
“Voting for symbolic measures marginalizes and removes its ability to be a constructive partner to promote peace in the Middle East,” the statement said.
Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, praised the vote as a “sweet victory for human rights.”
He said Presbyterian supporters of Palestinian rights have introduced divestment into the U.S. mainstream and have given Palestinians “real hope in the face of the relentless and intensifying cruelty of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid.”
The top Presbyterian legislative body has been considering divestment for a decade. Representatives of the Presbyterian socially responsible investment arm told the national meeting in Detroit that their efforts to lobby the three companies for change had failed.
Carol Hylkema of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a Presbyterian group that advocates for Palestinians and spearheaded the drive for divestment, said their action was modeled on the divestment movement to end apartheid in South Africa. The 2012 assembly had endorsed a boycott of Israeli products made in the Palestinian territories.
“Because we are a historical peacemaking church, what we have done is, we have stood up for nonviolent means of resistance to oppression and we have sent a clear message to a struggling society that we support their efforts to resist in a nonviolent way the oppression being thrust upon them,” said the Rev. Jeffrey DeYoe, of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network.
The vote was the subject of intense lobbying both from within and outside the church. Rabbis and other members of Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates for Palestinians, lined the halls of the meeting and prayed in vigils outside the convention center wearing T-shirts that read, “Another Jew Supporting Divestment.” Other rabbis and their Presbyterian supporters held panel discussions and sent letters to delegates urging them to vote no.