US Churches Take Stand Against Israeli Occupation
Barbara Ferguson, Arab News —

 

WASHINGTON, 20 November 2004 — Appalled by squalid living conditions of Palestinians in the occupied territories, several American churches have decided to take a stand against the Israeli occupation by proposing a “divestment of holdings by multinational corporations doing business with Israel” who, they say, are profiting from the occupation.

The possible divestment process could result in the sale of stock in June 2006.

The Presbyterian Church has spearheaded the call for possible divestments, saying four of its six divestment criteria target the Israeli occupation — including the construction of Jewish settlements.

It also intends to identify multinational corporations “that enable violence by either Palestinians or Israelis.”

Reactions have been swift. The decision has resulted in a barrage of protests ranging from an intense campaign by Jewish organizations and members of Congress who want to stop the divestment movement — to violent threats against Presbyterian Churches throughout the United States.

Following the church’s announcement, 13 congressmen wrote a letter to the US Department of Commerce stating that the divestment subject violates America’s laws regarding the Arab boycott of Israel.

The letter was initiated by the Zionist Organization of America. The congressmen urged the office to “investigate the national boycott campaign against Israel, shut down the illegal divestment campaigns and impose the appropriate penalties.”

Another group of congressmen then sent a letter to the Presbyterian Church’s chief executive, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, asking the church to dump its divestment plan.

The driving force behind the letter, Howard Berman, D-California, termed the church’s divestment policy “irresponsible, counterproductive and morally bankrupt.”

The letter stated that the resolution “leads us to only one conclusion: The Presbyterian Church has knowingly gone on record calling for jeopardizing the existence of the state of Israel.”

Leaders of Jewish groups have also met with members of the Presbyterian Church to express their anger over the decision, which resulted in a proposal to organize joint trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as increasing interfaith dialogue on the local level and among seminary students.

But protests have continued, and Presbyterian Churches throughout the US announced they are increasing security after an anonymous letter threatening to burn down churches in retaliation “for your anti-Israel and anti-Jewish attitudes” was sent from Queens (a borough in New York City) to the church’s headquarters in Kentucky.

According to Newsday, a Long Island based newspaper: “The Queens letter received last week at the Louisville offices was the first to threaten violence. It said the leadership of the church had until Nov. 15 to rescind its resolution.”

“There will be arson attacks against the Presbyterian Churches with people inside. There will be bloodshed,” the letter states.

The FBI is investigating.

The Anti-Defamation League, a New York area Jewish organization, told Newsday Thursday it condemned the threat. “We strongly believe the appropriate way to resolve the differences between the Jewish community and the Presbyterians is through dialogue and not violence,” rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of ADL’s interfaith affairs, told journalists.

But the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and the B’nai B’rith have not withdrawn their call “for all Jewish organizations to end all dialogue” with the Presbyterian Church “in response to the Presbyterians’ call on corporations worldwide to cancel their investments in Israel.”

The ZOA slammed the church, saying it “denounced Israel as a racist, apartheid state for defending itself against suicide bombers; and decided to fund missionary activities aimed at converting American Jews to Christianity.

ZOA National President Morton A. Klein said: “No dialogue is possible with those who endanger Israel’s existence by encouraging international economic warfare against the Jewish state, and who reject the right of Jews to practice their own religion.”

Kevin Eckstrom of the Religion News Service reported that “church headquarters in Louisville, Ky., has been ‘inundated’ with hundreds of angry phone calls and e-mails from Jews” on these subjects.

Jewish moderates, however, have sided with the Presbyterian Church. The Jewish Voice for Peace, based in California, praised the church’s divestment exploration as “in the best Judeo-Christian tradition of supporting universal human rights and justice.”

The swell of criticism and the threat of violence surprised many members within the church.

“This policy came up from the church’s grassroots, a church in Florida proposed the divestment issue, and the peacemaking committee examined it and it was approved by a majority vote with the church,” a staff member in the General Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church told Arab News anonymously in a phone interview yesterday.

The church “has yet to even decide whether it will divest,” the source said, adding the council was surprised by “the letters from Congress saying our move undermines the security of Israel.”

But the source said the church has also received a groundswell of support for their decision. “Because they feel it broke through the impasse and allowed us to focus on the treatment of the Palestinian civilians.”

The decision also caused tensions within the church hierarchy. “The strong reaction from Jewish communities has caused a lot of infighting in our church,” said the source. “It’s a weird situation, the church had a meeting earlier this week and it seems the most vocal people against the divestment are those who formed alliances with the Jewish community in the 1960s.”

But the attacks have caused officials in the Presbyterian Church to dig in their heels. “I’m really proud of the fact that there are a few key people within the church who believe that what they are doing is right and aren’t willing to back down,” said the source.

Josh Reubner, grassroots advocacy coordinator for the US Campaigns and the Israeli Occupation (www.endtheoccupation.org), a diverse nationwide coalition of 175 organizations that work to end US support for Israeli occupation in the territories, applauds the church’s decision. “For the Commerce Department to threaten organizations that are considering divesting from companies that profit from human rights violations, and to call this a violation of US an anti-boycott law is ridiculous,” said Reubner.

“It’s the Commerce Department that is breaking US law by licensing caterpillar bulldozers to be sold to the Israeli Army in full knowledge that Israel is using these bulldozers in contravention of the US Arms Expert Control Act and Foreign Assistance Act.”

Reubner said there is “tremendous” pressure being put on the Presbyterian Church to reverse its decision. “But I’m hopeful that the church will stick with its clear, moral decision and not relent under pressure from extremists.”