The 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on July 5, 2012, in Pittsburgh
The 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on July 5, 2012, in Pittsburgh. Photo by AP
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People attending the 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) listen to a session on July 5, 2012 in Pittsburgh. Photo by AP

The largest Presbyterian group in the United States narrowly defeated a proposal to divest from three companies that do business with Israel. After an hours-long debate that took place late Thursday, the Presbyterian General Assembly voted 333-331, with two abstentions, to reject the divestment plan..

The debate was long and nerve-racking, as those attending the debate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania were deeply divided on the matter.

Divestment supporters said the targeted companies - Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Motorola - were profiting from Palestinian suffering. The American Jewish Committee, a public policy group, said the proposal demonizes Israel and threatens Christian-Jewish relations.

In an announcement, one student said the reasoning behind the divestment proposal was not a motion against Israel or the Jews, but rather against investment in "non-peaceful products." "Many of us can't sleep at night knowing our pension money comes from this oppression," he said.

A Palestinian told the assembly that his house "was demolished in 1968 by a CAT bulldozer," adding that "occupation is the worst form of terror."

A Caterpillar employee from Illinois complained that commissioners were only being presented one side of the story. "I've been an employee of Caterpillar for 37 years. You are being shown the very narrow side of CAT. CAT is the first responder around the world," he said, noting the company's work at the Twin Towers after the September 11 attacks. "I am proud to wear this Caterpillar shirt, no matter what happens at this GA."

Another commissioner said she feared the motion was "missing the target." "Different companies in Israel militarize the bulldozers. Caterpillar can't stop building at the West Bank", she said.

There were also those who expressed concern that a vote in favor of divestment would only "alienate our Jewish friends." Matthew Miller from Iowa said, "I believe an unintended consequence of the divestment will alienate our interfaith Jewish partners in this country. Taking one side over another will privilege Palestinian suffering, not Israelis that are terrorized by their neighbors that seek to eliminate them. This course of action will not have its intended effect; it will achieve nothing but alienation." His comment stirred angry responses that the Presbyterian community has been "doing what Rabbis told us to do" for years, and the "number of settlers is over 500,000 today," adding that it would be a shame "to be bullied out" of the divestment and to "ignore the suffering of our Palestinian brothers."

Some harsh words were thrown around the room. "Investment will never relieve our conscience from ethnic cleansing and apartheid," said one debater. "There is plenty of investment in Israel – billions of dollars are invested in illegal colonies, a separation wall. We have had enough with investments that bring hatred."

The Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) expressed its disappointment with the decision, as they did after a similar initiative failed to pass the Methodist Church vote earlier this year.

“It appears that church commissioners were swayed by a fear that divestment would cause irreparable harm to Jewish-Christian relations,” said Rev. Katherine Cunningham, IPMN Vice-Moderator. “In reality, 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.”

In a subsequent vote of 369-290 the assembly decided to support a minority report that called for a positive course of action with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and proposed to invest in companies that promote peace.

Pro-Palestinian Presbyterians have been trying for years to persuade the denomination to divest. The church, however, has been dissuaded by U.S. Jewish groups and other Christians who argue that withdrawing investments will not contribute to peace in the region.

Pension funds in Norway and Sweden have divested themselves of holdings in some firms involved in building settlements or helping to erect the West Bank separation barrier. European activists have stepped up pressure on companies by exposing their West Bank ties and picketing stores that sell goods produced in Israeli settlements.

While Thursday's vote may have resulted in the General Assembly voting down the divestment, members vowed to reignite the debate next year, saying that if progress is not made between Israel and the Palestinians, the result of the next vote might be very different.