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Presbyterians dump companies they say are tied to Palestinian occupation

By Shelby Lin Erdman and Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 9:22 AM EDT, Sun June 22, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In a 310-303 vote, the church decides to pull $21 million in investments
  • It is divesting from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions
  • Jewish groups, and some Presbyterians, condemn the decision
  • The church is keeping other investments in Israel, while investing in Palestinian territories, too

(CNN) -- The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) is pulling millions of dollars in investments out of three U.S. companies tied to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

In a close vote at its annual assembly in Detroit on Friday, the church voted 310-303 to divest $21 million from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.

The church says Caterpillar supplies products to Israel that are used to destroy Palestinian homes, Hewlett-Packard provides logistics and technology to help enforce the naval blockade of Gaza, and Motorola Solutions provides military and surveillance systems in illegal Israeli settlements.

But immediately after the vote, church leaders said the decision was not a judgment against Israel. "In no way is this a reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers," Moderator Heath Rada said.

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The approved divestment proposal included a preface underscoring the denomination's longstanding commitment to peace in the region and the suffering on both sides.

"We recognize the complexity of the issues, the decades-long struggle, the pain suffered and inflicted by policies and practices of both the Israeli government and the Palestinian entities," it said.

The church also stressed it still supports Israel and that the vote was not connected to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an international campaign to punish the Jewish state over the occupation of Palestinian lands and other hotly contested issues.

Vote stirs passionate responses

But some Jewish organizations, even those that support a two-state solution to the ongoing crisis in the region, see the decision as a direct result of and support for the BDS movement.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) says the decision undermines the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"It is a very sad day for Presbyterian-Jewish relations when church leaders from across the U.S. align with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement," Rabbi Noam Marans, the AJC's director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, said in a statement.

"This is an affront to all who are committed to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Marans said.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, issued a statement after the vote calling it "a preference for a policy of isolation, rather than one of engagement."

"Of course, we will continue to partner with our allies within the church who are committed to a two-state solution, reject the effort of the BDS campaign to delegitimize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and work toward a just and fair solution to enable the Palestinians to achieve the state that they deserve," Jacobs said.

The Anti-Defamation League called the move "out of step" with the majority of Presbyterians in churches across the United States.

The ADL's National Director Abraham J. Foxman said the decision also creates an atmosphere of open hostility."

"This resolution sends a painful message to American Jews and threatens the long-standing relationship between the Jewish community and the national Presbyterian Church with whom we have worked closely on many issues of mutual concern."

Some Presbyterians are condemning the vote, as well.

The Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, the president of New York's Auburn Seminary, is calling on Presbyterians opposed to the decision to reach out to their local Jewish communities to try to repair relationships following the controversial vote.

Henderson said the vote "sets back the work toward a just and peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

"It hurts the Presbyterian place at the table for peacemaking, and creates barriers not just between Presbyterians and Jews, and Israelis and Palestinians, but also within the Presbyterian body."

Palestinian supporters of the BDS movement, meantime, said they are pleased with the church's divestment decision and see it as a sign the movement is gaining momentum in United States.

Omar Barghouti, for one, calls the vote a "sweet victory."

"Presbyterian supporters of Palestinian rights have not only solidly introduced divestment from Israel's occupation to the U.S. mainstream, they have given the Palestinian people real hope in the face of the relentless cruelty of Israel's regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid," said Barghouti, a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Not a snap decision

The denomination, the largest Presbyterian body in the United States, says it still supports the Jewish state.

"We have significant investments in Israel," said church spokeswoman Kathy Francis. And the church is keeping them.

The decision was about morality, not politics, she said. There are many Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories that the church is concerned about and obligated to support.

Francis said the church no longer wanted to profit from investing in companies that have a hand in the destruction of people's homes and lives. Instead, she said, it will now shift some of its investments into economic development programs in the Palestinian territories.

The divestment from the three companies was not a snap decision. The church has discussed and considered the issue for the past 10 years. It almost passed a divestment proposal at its 2012 assembly, narrowly voting it down by just two votes.

Francis said the vote may make the Presbyterians seem unique among American Protestants, but they are not alone.

"There are other denominations that are grappling with this," she said.

CNN's Daniel Burke and Joe Sutton contributed to this report

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