Flashpoint Israel

A vote by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to use economic sanctions against certain companies doing business with Israel – namely those that profit from the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – has set off a quiet firestorm within the American religious community.

The Presbyterians' decision to consider divesting such businesses from its $8 billion portfolio, coupled with the prospect that the Episcopal Church and other churches might do the same, is adding to tensions that have risen over recent years between mainline Protestant churches and the American Jewish community over their differing views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is also stirring Jewish groups to try to head off divestment — and to rebuild a rapport with these churches, with whom they have long worked to further civil rights and social justice.

"To call for divestment played into all the language of boycott, from earlier periods in Jewish history to the Arab boycott of Israel. It caused an explosion in the Jewish community," says David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

In some ways, last summer's divestment vote has forced a conversation about the Middle East conflict. It also raises the stakes for those who, earlier this year, launched a bid to renew the old coalition. Christian and Jewish leaders have met twice, hosted by AJC and the National Council of Churches (NCC). From discussions on the "theology of land" to the divestment issue, the religious leaders "spoke from their pain" and asked tough questions of one another, says the Rev. Shanta Premawardhana, NCC interfaith secretary.

Tensions rose when a Presbyterian delegation traveling in the Middle East in October met with members of Hizbullah, the Lebanese group on the U.S. terrorist list. The church's national leadership disavowed the action. Then in November, the church received a letter threatening arson against Presbyterian churches unless it halted the divestment process. Jewish groups condemned the threat.

Last week, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs asked Protestants to reject divestment in favor of joint efforts to end the conflict. Elaborating on Jewish concerns, it said the divestment process is discriminatory, will provoke intransigence on both sides, and "is dangerously ill-matched to our passionately shared vision of a peaceful resolution to the conflict."

Mainline churches have supported Israel since 1948 and reject terrorism; they also have longstanding ties to churches in the Holy Land and are critical of Israeli military practices in the territories. Illegal expansion of Israeli settlements and a new security wall that encroaches on Palestinian land are making a viable Palestinian state less feasible, Presbyterians and others say. With the U.S. government taking little action to help matters, they add, unusual measures are required.

"The decision to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment ... was not taken lightly," the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, a Presbyterian leader, wrote to members of the U.S. Congress. "It was born out of the frustration that many of our members, as well as members of other denominations, feel with the current policies of Israel and those of our own government."

The Presbyterians say their aims are to influence the practices of companies and use their resources — an $8 billion portfolio — in morally responsible ways. "We have to be principled; we respect human rights and the legitimacy of international law, and when Israelis or Palestinians breech either we'll take a hard look at our investments," says the Rev. Marthame Sanders, who was in ministry in the West Bank.

The church's committee on socially responsible investment will identify firms that provide services or equipment to support the military occupation or Jewish settlements; finance or assist in building the wall; or provide help to Israeli or Palestinian groups that commit violence against innocent civilians.

It will seek meetings with corporate leaders, and possibly file shareholder resolutions, using divestment as a last resort. Divestment decisions require approval by the church general assembly in 2006.

Some U.S. Jewish peace groups support the initiative, Mr. Sanders says, including Jewish Voice for Peace. JVP has filed its own shareholder initiative asking Caterpillar Inc. to investigate whether Israeli use of its bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes violates the firm's code of conduct. Other liberal Jewish groups, however, oppose it.

The Jewish community has countered other divestment efforts. Campaigns on colleges have made little headway. A proposal to make Somerville, Mass., the first American city to divest from Israel is likely to be turned back this week.

It is making some inroads with the churches, too. Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, which has close ties to a neighboring synagogue, is asking the denomination to slow the process and engage the Jewish community. It proposes that, if divestment occurs, money from stock sales be reinvested in Israel in companies not tied to the occupation.

"I've tried to interpret to my Jewish friends that this is not an anti-Israel nor anti-Jewish decision, but an attempt by a church to speak a word of hope and justice for [Palestinians] for whom those words are pretty elusive," says the Rev. John Buchanan, church pastor. But "I'm not convinced divestment is a wise thing."

The U.S. Episcopal Church, meanwhile, said in November it will begin to study how it should respond to companies that contribute to the occupation's infrastructure or to violence against civilians. It will include Jewish groups, Palestinians, and the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem.

"For us, the term is not 'divestment,'" says Bishop Christopher Epting, deputy for interfaith relations. "We'd be voting certain shareholder resolutions expressing concern to companies in which we own stock." Jewish leaders are more approving of this approach.

Other mainline Protestants are also talking about the issue.

"The notion that a two-state solution might no longer be realistic is very unsettling to many people, both Jewish and Christian," says Jim Winkler of the United Methodist Church's public policy board.

Jewish and mainline Christian leaders say they will travel together to the region to talk with Israelis and Palestinians, and will urge the U.S. government to become more engaged in the peace process. "The Presbyterian decision was a flash point," says Bishop Epting, "but in a strange way, it may well re-energize the relationship."

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