Boycott - Reuters - May 31, 2010
A Belgian demonstrator displays a sign reading "Boycott Israel, racist state" Photo by Reuters
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Following a lengthy and heated debate, committee 15 of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States voted in favor of a motion calling for divestment from three companies that "profit from nonpeaceful pursuits" in Israel.

Whether or not the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel is gaining traction is one of the hottest questions being asked among the most politically active members of the Jewish community – as many people take the issue to heart.

Israel supporters claim that the numbers of participants in the annual "Israel apartheid" week have not grown significantly, and that the American Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, despite regularly raising the topic of divesting from companies that "profit from Israeli occupation," generally end up voting against it.  The discourse is shifting – and not in Israel’s favor.

In 2008, the United Methodist Church (UMC) rejected an Israel divestment resolution. On May 2, the UMC general conference did it again, rejecting a resolution calling for divestment from three companies doing business with Israel (although the conference did adopt a measure recommending a boycott of products made in Israeli settlement).

This week, the topic was raised again in Pittsburgh, at the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Last time, the resolution didn't even pass the committee level, let alone the general vote.

This time, something different happened. Committee 15 of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church voted in favor of a motion calling for divestment from  Motorola, for providing surveillance equipment for Israeli settlements, Caterpillar, for providing bulldozers used for demolishing Palestinian houses, and Hewlett-Packard, for selling hardware used by Israel in its naval blockade of Gaza.

The motion also called for the church to increase investments in companies promoting peaceful pursuits. The final vote is expected at the general assembly later this week.

Rev. Dr. Walt Davis, Co-Chair of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, called the decision "an encouraging step".

 "We hope plenary voters will follow the lead of Committee 15 and the recommendations of the Mission Responsibility Through Investing committee and support divestment from these companies that are profiting from Israel's violations of Palestinian human rights. It’s been a long and thorough process and it’s finally time for the church to stop profiting from the suffering the peoples of the Holy Land,” said Davis.

But during Monday evening's debate, there were also concerns expressed over the possible impact of the decision on the relations with the Jewish community - and other sectors of the American Christian community.

Weeks before the general assembly opened on June 30, the proposal drew sharp criticism and warnings from Jewish American organizations, with the exception of those on the far left, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace. Over 1,300 Rabbis and over 12,000 American Jews signed letters to delegates of the biennial Presbyterian Church General Assembly, calling them to reject the "counterproductive" resolution.

In response, the Anti-Defamation League warned of the negative effect on the Jewish and American Christian relations. The American Jewish Committee called the resolutions generally put to votes every two years at the Presbyterian Church gatherings "an unfortunate tradition" meant to vilify Israel and adopt positions of “non-representative" Palestinian leaders.

Even Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of the leftist pro-Israeli lobby JStreet, wrote an article titled “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Put Allies at Odds."

"In our view, the one-sided, extreme rhetoric that accompanies the global BDS movement makes a mutually agreeable solution more difficult to achieve, not less" wrote Ben-Ami, stressing that he hopes that PCUSA "will avoid this unproductive path,"

Ben-Ami added, "even the limited divestment approach under consideration by PCUSA falls under the rubric of larger BDS efforts to place blame entirely on one side of the conflict. Such an approach encourages not reconciliation, but polarization.”

Some members of the general assembly committee that discussed the motion in Pittsburg said they do not understand why the resolution is interpreted as a threat - they insisted it's a moral issue, certainly not an anti-Semitic one, to stop pouring resources “into hurting people in another country."

"There's violence happening here. Someone is profiting from it. And we need to not be a part of that," said one of the Committee members.

It's not that Israel is running short of supporters among the American Christian community; in about two weeks, Christians United for Israel, a large Evangelical pro-Israel organization, will run its annual gathering in Washington DC. It's likely that the Presbyterian divestment motion will draw quite a bit of criticism there.

Dr. Nahida Halaby Gordon, moderator of the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus, told "Haaretz" she feels there is a good chance for the vote to pass.

"Sometimes the plenary votes contrary to the vote in the committee, but the numbers in the committee vote in favor of the divestment were high in favor of the divestment (36 members of the committee voted in favor, 11 against NM) - almost three to one, I feel there is a big support for this." If the vote fails, she says, she intends to come with other activists with the same message to the next GA. She stressed the decision "is not intended to demonize or delegitimize either Israel or Jewish community in this country."

As for the possible result of the divestment decision - she says it's not the hope it will seriously hurt these companies profits, but the message it sends.

"We are a small church, we don't own that many stocks and the divestment will probably occur over a year or two - it's not that we'll sell tomorrow all our stocks. But it's a moral message to these companies that you should not profit from the occupation."