Presbyterians rebuff of BDS not end of anti-Israel push

Proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel may have lost a key battle last week — by a hair’s breadth — but they have no intention of giving up.

That’s the message from backers of a divestment motion at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which on July 5 rejected a proposal to divest from companies selling equipment to Israel for use in the West Bank.

The 333-331 vote, with two abstentions, at the church’s Pittsburgh gathering was the closest that the BDS movement has come to a victory in a major American religious denomination.

On July 8 the assembly defeated, by a substantial margin — 403-175 — a resolution that would have likened Israel’s West Bank presence to apartheid. But a boycott resolution targeting products manufactured in the West Bank did pass, by 457 to 180.

The Rev. Neal Presa (at right podium) moderates the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly July 5, where an Israel divestment proposal was defeated. photo/ap-keith srakocic

“We are concerned, but think it’s unproductive,” Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said of the vote to boycott West Bank products.  

Advocates of the defeated divestment resolution vowed to press on.

“The divestment motion was supported by a broad alliance of Jews, Christians and others who believe that nonviolent means such as divestment are an effective way to pressure the Israeli government into abiding by international law and respecting Palestinian human rights,” said the Rev. Katherine Cunningham, the vice-moderator of the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network, which recommended divestment.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted in 2004 to approach corporations that it said were aiding Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, asking them to reconsider business with the Jewish state. The effort, which held back initial calls for divestment, was reaffirmed in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Felson of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs called the Presbyterians’ July 5 vote against divestment a victory, even though it was closer than previous votes in other religious movements. In May, the Methodist Church defeated similar divestment proposals by a 2-to-1 margin.

While divestment is now off the table for the church, more efforts targeting Israel should be expected, said the Rev. John Wimberly, co-moderator of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. He also cautioned that the vote should not be seen as approval of Israel’s policies.

“The fact is there was an overwhelming consensus that the Palestinians are in a very bad place and we want to help them,” said Wimberly, who opposes divestment.

A number of Jewish groups pushed hard against the divestment resolution, and more than 22,000 Jews signed a letter organized by the JCPA and the Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel Action Network urging the Presbyterian delegates to reject it.

The letter followed an earlier one signed by 1,300 rabbis and sent to the church that called on Presbyterians to deepen their “understandings of the multiple narratives in the region” and “focus on positive steps including economic development, Palestinian state building, and a return to negotiations.”

Meanwhile, on July 11, the U.S.-based Episcopal Church rejected divestment and adopted a resolution at its General Convention Assembly calling for “a negotiated two-state solution” and “positive investment” as responses to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

At the meeting in Indianapolis, delegates tabled a resolution that would provide “information on products” made in the West Bank.

The moves “distanced the church” from the BDS movement, according to an American Jewish Committee statement.

“The Episcopal Church has demonstrated its commitment to a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and a rejection of unhelpful one-sided judgments aimed at Israel that do not advance the cause of peace,” Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, said in the statement. Marans attended the convention as an invited guest.