PCUSA Divests from Occupation Support Firms

by James M. Wall

Observer Robert Ross reacts: Joshua Lott for The New York Times

Ten years after the start of their divestment campaign against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and people, the Presbyterian Church (USA) anti-occupation forces have finally removed that denomination’s funds from the occupation.

In their 221st biennial General Assembly Friday, PCUSA commissioners (delegates) voted 310-303 to divest all financial involvement in three U.S. corporations whose products are used to enforce Israel’s occupation: Hewlett Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar.

Hewlett Packard manufactures eye and face scanning devices used at Israeli checkpoints, Motorola provides communications facilities within the occupied areas; while Caterpillar makes bulldozers used by Israeli authorities to destroy Palestinian homes.

The removal of PCUSA investments in those firms will neither end the occupation nor change Israel’s tactics over a captive population.  Total PCUSA investment in these firms is but a tiny portion of the Israeli military budget, a substantial amount of which is derived from annual U.S. gifts and loans.

The vote was not about the money; it was a moral vote against the occupation.

Through their divestment vote, U.S. Presbyterians are telling Israel, we do not support your occupation, no matter how hard you try to incorrectly shape the conversation as anti-Israel and anti-Hewlett Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar.

What will be the impact of the vote on U.S. public opinion? As with most major changes in history, the impact is usually incremental.  This vote was a small vote for humankind, a vote that should be remembered the way the 1833 vote taken in the British Parliament to end the slave trade, is remembered.

Christian evangelical William Wilberforce was a leader in the fight against slavery through much of his life. He was fighting against a strongly-entrenched economic system that profited from the slave trade. . Here is one account of that British Parliament vote:

Despite the groundswell of public opinion, Parliament still refused to ban slavery, until parliamentary reform removed many of its supporters. Despite this, it was still not clear that Parliament would act. Wilberforce wrote a last petition. The Parliamentary debate lasted three months.

On the 26th July, 1833, the Abolition of Slavery bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons. A messenger rushed to Wilberforce’s house. They told him that slavery in British colonies would finally be abolished. Just three days later, on 29th July, William Wilberforce died.

Other denominations now have the Presbyterians as a moral bellwether. If they pay attention, they have also seen the Israeli narrative playbook in operation.

With approximately 1.76 million members in 2013, the PCUSA is the third largest denomination among the seven major U.S. mainline churches.

The largest denomination among the Big Seven is the United Methodist Church (UMC), which reported almost 8 million U.S. members in 2008. Anti-occupation UMC forces recently achieved a major divestment victory when its Pension Board withdrew church funds from G4S, a British firm that supplies equipment for use in Israeli prisons housing Palestinian prisoners.

Word on the church “street” is that the UMC is gearing up for its own divestment battle at its 2016 General Conference. The results of the USPCS vote should encourage Methodist anti-occupation leaders to prepare for their own exit from the immoral occupation business.

The Methodists can expect to encounter the same playbook in 2016 that the anti-divestment forces used in the PCUSA General Assembly.

That playbook may well have contributed to the narrowness of the Presbyterian vote Friday. The New York Times story at the end of the 2012 General Assembly in Pittsburgh, PA, echoes stories that swept through the media this year after the 2014 vote.

In 2012 the vote was even closer than it was in 2014. It also achieved the opposite result. The New York Times story reported in 2012 that the General Assembly voted 333 to 331, with two abstentions not to divest from Hewlett Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar.

As Yogi Berra once said, the 2014 vote was “deja vu all over again”, except with a different ending.  Here is Laurie Goodstein, who also covered the 2014 GA, writing in the Times, July 5, 2012:

The decision not to divest, the culmination of an eight-year process, was watched intensely by Christians, Jews and Palestinians in the United States and in the Middle East.

It is likely to bring a sigh of relief to Jewish groups in Israel and the United States that lobbied Presbyterians against divestment, and to dismay the international movement known as B.D.S. — Boycott, Divest and Sanctions — which advocates using economic leverage to pressure Israel to return occupied land to the Palestinians.

In 2012, the General Assembly voted “to toss out the divestment measure and replace it with a resolution to encourage ‘positive investment’ in the occupied territories.”

The anti-divestment playbook was very much in evidence in Detroit last week. Hanging over the commissioners as they debated and finally voted, were passionate pleas not to divest, from commissioners who were terribly afraid that relations with their Jewish friends would be damaged.

This should have been evident to those observing and voting in Detroit’s Cobo Center. It was certainly evident to those of us who spent many hours on Friday watching proceedings on a public live internet feed.

One young commissioner was so emotional over the impact of the divestment vote on employees he knew personally who worked for Caterpillar, that he could hardly speak. The presiding officer had to gently tell him his time had expired.

That is the pro-Israeli playbook: Step One, tap into the personal feelings of commissioners where they “live”, American workers and Jewish neighbors.  Step Two: hit the internal mute button on the suffering caused by the occupation.

The internal mute button kept the occupation out of most of the GA discussion, except for the occasional testimony from commissioners who have visited the occupied areas.

One commissioner, Paul Tallarico, moderator of the Presbytery of the Palisades in New Jersey, spoke from the floor and told of visiting a Palestinian shop keeper just off Bethlehem Square.

In their conversation, Tallarico said to the shop-keeper, “I know how you feel”. The shopkeeper asked him where he lived.. Tallarico answered, “in the United States”.  The shopkeeper responded, “Then you don’t know how I feel. I live in a prison all of the time”.

There was a poignant authenticity in that exchange. Did it change votes inside Cobo Center? Only the voting commissioners know.  But what it does do is to highlight the stark contrast between the pro-Israel playbook narrative, which keeps the discussion focused on American “feelings” and keeps it away from the sufferings of those who live under a tight military occupation.

There were many non-voting “observers” inside Cobo Hall, many of them people of all ages who belong to Jewish organizations opposed to the occupation.

The picture at top of this posting captures one of those “observers”, Robert Ross, as he reacts joyfully and in amazement just as the final divestment victory vote is posted on the big screen behind the podium. The picture is from the New York Times.

The battle is joined in this moment of victory against the occupation.

It will be a long battle. Not only will it be against the pro-Israel forces deeply embedded in all church bodies, but it will be a battle against an Israeli government that genuinely hates any criticism of their control of the occupied territories.

In its story on the anti-divestment vote, the Voice of America web site reported:

In a statement posted Friday night on its Facebook page, the Israeli Embassy in Washington called the resolution “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. “We would have hoped that (the Presbyterian church) would have joined us in promoting peace and denouncing terrorism.”

Mount up, you Methodists and you other five denominations in the Big Seven church bodies, the PCUSA has shown you how to fight the occupation. It has also shown you what you are up against.  It will not be easy.

When you think about the hard fight ahead, remember that Bethlehem shop keeper whose words are now in the hearts and minds of all who heard him quoted on the floor of the  2014 PCUSA General Assembly.

‘Then you don’t know how I feel. I live in a prison all of the time’.”

Words to fight by.


About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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14 Responses to PCUSA Divests from Occupation Support Firms

  1. Very well put, Mr. Wall. Thank you.

  2. Rev Diane Dulin, UCC says:

    Thank you, James Wall, for your tireless efforts. I join you in celebrating the brave and prophetic commissioners of the Presbyterian Church.

  3. Fr. Robert says:

    With this vote, the Israel Lobby’s three primary church targets — the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, and the United Church of Canada — have privileged truth over propaganda, dealing a stinging non-violent black eye to Lobby power. While PCUSA succumbed to distancing itself from the BDS movement so as to deny the Lobby the slander of being anti-Israel, the reality speaks for itself.

  4. Donna Wise says:

    I am so very proud to be a Presbyterian today. Yesterday we did as one commissioner said….. we “put our money where our mouth is.”

    Donna Wise

  5. Fred says:

    Considering the enormity of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians (including fellow Christians), this is a very small step, but it is at least a step. It is the Israeli government that is enforcing apartheid, demolishing homes of people because they’re not Jewish, stealing their land and torturing and imprisoning even children. They have one set of laws for Jews, another for non Jews.

    What’s needed is a total and complete economic boycott of all Israeli products, period. That’s what’s needed, as was done in South Africa. We need to work for this.

  6. A great report, Jim! Thank you! To me, the closeness of the 310-303 vote is absolutely scary….

  7. William L Bigelow says:

    James, thank you for this and your other helpful posts on the Israel/Palestine situation. I am a member of the Middle East Task Force in the Chicago Preabytery, where we have met! I had the good fortune to attend the General Assembly for four of the eight days. I definitely saw the pro-occupation influences you mentioned at work around the Assembly. The Presbyterians have a very open process where non-commissioners are invited to offer their input at various points in the over-all discuasion, thus opening itself to “influences” that are willing to “take advantage”. I also saw in operation various stalwart champions of the oppressed in Palestine at work–eapecially the Israel Palestinian Mission Network (IPMN), the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF), Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), Friends of Sabeel of North America (Fosna) –everyone has an acronym!–and many orhers.

    One event where “influence” was attempted was on the eve of the GA when John Buchanan, past Sr Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and Editor of the Christian Century magazine, with a list of like-minded signers, sent out an email to all the commissioners making irresponsible statements and attempting to malign critics of Israeli practices and policies. In particular his email brought up a statement evidently made by David Duke, the white supremacist and past Grand Wizard of the KKK, supporting the recent study guide called Zionism Unsettled produced by the IPMN.

    The implication was that the anti-occupation people are anti-semetic! I am ashamed that John Buchanan, such a “prestigeous” Presbyterian, and his followers, would have done this very low act. It’s hard to believe these people could stoop to this. The irony of it is that Dr Buchanan and his ilk have claimed David Duke and his ilk as their allies! But immediately, in response, the next morning at GA, the great Rick Ufford-Chase, previous Moderator of the GA and current head of the PPF, called a press conference with five other previous GA Moderators to expose this despicable deed and protest it.

    I was present at this press conference and felt a surge of pride to be in the presence of these who have genuine care for the Israel/Palestine situation but are not willing to sacrifice justice for “dialogue” or “friends” or be squelched by fear of the anti-defamation forces.

    William L Bigelow, Chicago

  8. Roy Hayes says:

    Let’s hope that the courage shown by the Presbyterians will encourage us Episcopalians to become more robust in our peacemaking efforts. Peace, Roy

  9. Samia Khoury says:

    Thank you so much, James, for this excellent coverage of the Presbyterian GA vote on divestment and for the inspiring story of William Wilberforce. I lived the tense moments of the vote as I was watching it live despite the different time zone. Yes indeed the Presbyterians made it due to their persistence and because it was not about money. They pursued this issue out of a moral responsibility despite the intimidation they were exposed to under the pretext of damaging interfaith dialogue. However I recall Rabbi Rosen’s comment regarding interfaith in the aftermath of the letter sent by 15 prominent Christian leaders to the Congress in October 2012: “We can talk about any religious issues we like, but criticism of Israel’s human rights violations is off limits.” So much for interfaith dialogue.


  11. Rev. Dr. Betty Jane Bailey says:

    I applaud Fred and his comment on June 21 reminding us that when you say “crimes against the Palestinians (including fellow Christians),” you are reminding everyone that Christians are victims as well as Muslims. In the image of the Body of Christ, Christians must speak up against the occupation as well.
    Betty Jane Bailey

  12. Martin Bailey says:

    It is clear to me that this Presbyterian action is indeed historic. It comes only after years of discussion, strategising, agonizing, debating, and voting. Many courageous Commissioners in past Assemblies have defended their conscientious votes in conversations with members of the Jewish community. And I am just as convinced that the tide of prophetic decisions is turning. At least two regional conferences of the United Church of Christ, including our own, have voted overwhelmingly to place the subject on the agenda of next year’s General Synod. We must help our friends in the Jewish community see that what we are attacking is the bigotry of the current Israeli administration that ignores the humanity of other people. Israel will continue to lose support around the world until justice and sovereignty comes to Palestine. We pray and work for reconciliation in the Middle East.

  13. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Thank you, Jim. Your excellent analogy was loud and clear.
    The Presbyterians have shown persistence and passion for justice, and like the Methodists, have demonstrated that, when they know the facts and when push comes to shove, the majority will speak truth to power (the Israel Powerhouse). I hope that all mainstream churches will follow suit.

    It just amazes me how some of the “pro-occupation” Presbyterian members were more concerned about their own personal selfish interests (relationships), as they perceived them, rather that what was right and just and human. They would rather put their “masks’ on and declare that they do not see.
    It amazes me even more that these same “types” mute out the “Christians” of the Holy Land from their vision almost entirely. When it suits them the “Christianity” factor (Sudan or Nigeria), or the “Jewish” factor (USSR, Central Europe, Africa).are of prime importance. But, when it does not suit Israel, then the authentic Christian voice of the Holy Land is strangulated.

  14. Gay Harter says:

    Congratulations Presbyterians, and blessings and thanks to IPMN and all your allies for your tremendous hard work and steadfastness. We of the United Church of Christ Palestine Israel Network hope to follow in your footsteps next year. We have already learned much from your work and look forward to your future support. The tide is turning; the arc is bending toward justice!

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