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Middle East Issues





The Bias Remains the Same


In the euphoria after a 2006 vote by the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly to “overturn” a 2004 resolution calling for divestment from companies that do business in Israel, it appeared that the PC(USA) had fundamentally altered its stance regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. One commentator called the 2006 vote a “victory for sanity, decency and Jewish rights.” The fact that 2006 General Assembly also passed a resolution condemning suicide bombings indicated to some that the PC(USA) had finally achieved a more comprehensive and honest understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict and that divestment was off the table.

 

Sadly, it appears the euphoria over the passage of the 2006 resolution was premature. The process initiated by the 2004 divestment resolution continues, unhindered in any way by the actions of the 2006 General Assembly. In particular, the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI), the PC(USA) committee responsible for managing the denomination’s investment portfolio, is preparing to engage in shareholder activism that, under pre-existing PC(USA) guidelines, serves as a prelude to divestment.

 

An undated MTRI document recently displayed on the PC(USA)’s website demonstrates that activists and staffers within the denomination are still intent on targeting companies that do business with Israel for shareholder activism. Moreover, they are working from a list of offending companies created in response to the 2004 divestment resolution. The document also indicates that officials involved in this campaign are still motivated by the same distorted view of the Arab-Israeli conflict that drove the 2004 divestment vote.

 

MRTI’s actions highlight a little noted aspect about the 2006 resolution. Yes, the 2006 resolution acknowledged the “hurt and misunderstanding” caused by the 2004 divestment resolution and no longer singled Israel out for divestment. Nevertheless, the language of the new resolution did not prohibit or block in any way, shape or form continued activism – including divestment – against companies that do business in Israel. In fact, the 2006 resolution provided renewed justification for the process that had already begun as a result of the 2004 divestment resolution.

 

 

Background

 

After the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline Protestant denomination with approximately 2.3 million members and 11,000 churches, approved an anti-Israel divestment resolution (resolution starts on page three of linked document) at its General Assembly in 2004, the church came under severe criticism. The resolution called on the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) to “initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel …”

 

The resolution also stated the occupation had “proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict.” The resolution prompted Rabbis for Human Rights, a group that promotes Palestinian rights and statehood, to condemn the PC(USA) in a July 2004 letter which stated “Your  simplistic moral declaration is inaccurate and inadequate to explain the situation in all its tragic moral complexity.”

 

The letter continues:

 
It is not just that your resolution ignores the homicidal ideologies that have so sadly taken hold among some of our Palestinian neighbors.
 
Nor is the problem just that it averts its eyes from the attempts to destroy our country that transcend the Occupation and precede it by decades. Its deepest flaw lies in the ramifications of the highly charged language you employ. Particularly insensitive to history and appalling in its potential consequences is the allegation that the Occupation is somehow “at the root of evil acts committed.” This is a restatement of the paradigmatic allegation that Jewish sins are somehow especially significant, especially “at the root of evil.”
 
You passed a resolution directed as a “call … on the Israeli government,” describing the Occupation in a way that profoundly places Israeli sin alone at the heart of the situation. While we recognize that you deplore terror against Israelis, you direct not one word of criticism to the government of the Palestinian Authority despite its manifest multitude of profound sins against God and the Human Rights of Palestinians and Jews. You ignore the incontrovertible fact that this catastrophe is the product of many causes and that there is guilt enough to share between all parties.
 
Because of such withering criticism from inside and outside the denomination, the PC(USA)’s General Assembly passed another resolution in 2006 as a corrective. This resolution, supported by activists within the denomination, stated:
 
We acknowledge that the actions of the 216th General Assembly caused hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion. We are grieved by the pain that this has caused, accept responsibility for the flaws in our process, and ask for a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.

 

The section of the 2004 resolution that instructed MRTI to “initiate a process of phased selective divestment” was replaced in 2006 with language calling on the MRTI to ensure that PC(USA) investments in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank “be invested only in peaceful pursuits.” The resolution also instructed MRTI to use the “customary corporate engagement process” in ensuring the peaceful nature of its investment in Israel and the territories.

 

In laymen’s terms, the General Assembly reversed its policy of singling Israel out for divestment, but did not preclude divestment from companies that do business in Israel. Instead, the PC(USA)’s 2006 General Assembly affirmed a pre-existing process by which divestment could proceed. The 2006 resolution may have represented a symbolic victory for those within the PC(USA) who wanted fairer treatment of Israel, but procedurally, it left the door for an anti-Israel divestment wide open.

 

 

MRTI Actions

 

In response to the 2004 divestment resolution, the MRTI committee issued a set of guidelines detailing how it would proceed with the policy of phased selective divestment enacted at that summer’s General Assembly.

 

According to the guidelines, issued in November 2004, the process would begin with correspondence with company officials, and if this did not achieve the desired results, MRTI would pursue shareholder resolutions. If these shareholder resolutions proved ineffective, then the committee would then ask the PC(USA)’s General Assembly to authorize the sale of the stock in question.

 

Then, in August 2005, the PC(USA) issued a list of companies doing business in Israel that would be the targets of MRTI activism. The list included Catterpillar, Citigroup, ITT Industries, Motorola, and United Technologies. An article from the PC(USA) news service about the list states:

 
Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, staff to the MRTI Committee, said that the next step will be to engage senior management of each company in a conversation aimed at persuading them to change practices that enable or support violence in Israel and Palestine: “We are initiating a slow, deliberate process designed to produce opportunities for engaging companies around the social witness policies of the denomination through dialogue, shareholder resolutions and public pressure, so that these corporations might change their business practices which inflict harm on the innocent and delay movement toward a just peace.”
 
"If these dialogues fail,” said Somplatsky-Jarman "we may conclude that our investments are not being used for activities that support the broad mission of the Church. At that point, divestment is an option that the General Assembly may consider."

 

A work plan recently posted on the MRTI’s website indicates the process described in the 2004 document, continues unabated – despite the passage of the 2006 resolution – billed as a reversal of the divestment resolution. The work plan states:

 
The 2006 General Assembly stated that investments in companies doing business in Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank be only in companies engaged in peaceful pursuits. The normal MRTI process of corporate engagement is the proper vehicle for achieving this goal. MRTI will continue its work to fulfill the General Assembly’s goal by continuing to engage the five corporations (Caterpillar, Citigroup, ITT Industries, Motorola and United Technologies) previously identified by the MRTI criteria and process adopted in November 2005. This will involve dialogues and filing or co-filing shareholder resolutions with some of the companies, and will be done in cooperation with several ecumenical partners. The ecumenical partners include the Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, Mercy Asset Management, Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Methodist Church (General Board of Pensions and Benefits, General Board of Global Ministries and the General Board of Church and Society), the Passionist Brothers, Sisters of Loretto and United Church of Canada. The criteria were designed to identify corporations involved in actions detrimental to the peace process that had been lifted up by the General Assembly. These actions include the continued occupation of Palestinian territory; building, expansion and maintenance of Israeli settlements on occupied land; construction of the Separation Barrier on occupied territory; acts of violence against innocent Israelis and Palestinians; and making the Palestinian territory economically and geographically nonviable.
 
This year several ecumenical partners are prepared to file or co-file shareholder resolutions addressing the broader human rights and foreign military sales context. This includes the issue of foreign military sales with ITT Corporation and Caterpillar, and corporate human rights policies with Motorola, Caterpillar and United Technologies.

 

The upshot is this: MRTI’s policies regarding companies that do business in Israel remain unchanged. MRTI is still doing exactly what it would have done if the 2006 resolution had not been enacted and is working from a list of offending companies created in response to the divestment resolution passed by the PC(USA)’s 2004 General Assembly.

 

Moreover, it appears the PC(USA) is part of a larger mainline effort to use the drama of shareholder resolutions to broadcast its distorted narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Other groups apparently on board with this strategy include the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the United Methodist Church – all churches whose prophetic voices have been much more often triggered by Israeli use of force than Palestinian or Arab violence against Israel.


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