Special Report

Protestants and Anti-Israel Divestment

An attempt to distort official Methodist policy?

By 6.16.14

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Anti-Israel church activists are claiming that the United Methodist Church divested from a British firm servicing Israeli prisons to protest Israeli policies towards Palestinians. It turns out the claim, which made the New York Times, is not publicly confirmed by the United Methodist pensions agency, which says it divested for other reasons. But the claim was clearly timed to influence the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, which will vote this week on whether that denomination will divest against Israel.

“This is a transparent media stunt on the eve of the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly trying to prejudice that deliberation of anti-Israel and pro-divestment resolutions in Detroit next week,” pronounced Noam Marans of the American Jewish Committee.

The Times on Thursday, in a story headlined “Methodists to Sell Shares as a Protest Over Israel,” quoted an outspoken critic of Israel at the New York-based United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries claiming that the sale of about $110,000 worth of G4S stock holdings by the United Methodist pensions board was, as the article paraphrased, “intended to have a larger symbolic impact, adding to the pressure on Israel to stop building settlements and end the occupation.”

Claims of Methodist anti-Israel divestment originated at least partly with a news release from a pro-divestment caucus group called United Methodist Kairos Response, which failed to persuade the governing United Methodist General Conference in 2012 to back divestment. Instead delegates from around the world rejected divestment by 685-246. It would have been odd for the church's General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (GBPHB), which had quietly opposed divestment, to have switched course and ignored the church's governing body, which sets denominational policy.

But the Kairos news release, which also inspired a story in the Huffington Post, quoted the United Methodist missions official: “This is the first time that a United Methodist general agency has included human rights violations related to Israel’s illegal settlements and military occupation in a decision to divest from a company. We celebrate this strong human rights message both to G4S specifically and to other companies whose business operations support longstanding human rights abuses against Palestinians.”

Kairos claimed a “top executive of GBPHB contacted United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR) leaders this week about the sale of G4S stocks, informing them that this decision was due in large part to the serious concerns about G4S activities raised by United Methodists seeking a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

But the Methodist pensions board has not confirmed the anti-Israel divestment claim. Instead the pensions board, in a careful statement, which it reports having shared with Kairos before the Kairos news release, attributes divesting from G4S to its work in the prison industry, in which the pensions board resolved in early 2012 to avoid investing. Here’s the pensions board statement: 

While we did not have the opportunity to see the UM Kairos Response press release in advance, we shared the information below with them: The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits sold its G4S shares for reasons related to a number of that company’s business activities. Our decision was specific to G4S. Our rationale for selling G4S was that we felt the inherent nature of the company’s products and services—which are tailored to the prison industry—may not align with UMC values. We are waiting to conduct additional research after our board of directors meets in July to review and discuss the broad range of our investment policies—we may have additional comments after their deliberations.

Possibly staff at the pensions board want to have it both ways, privately catering to divestment activists, at least on this one case, while publicly adhering to official United Methodist policy. But if they won’t publicly own that Israel was the target of their GS4 decision, it undermines the divestment groups claims.

An earlier policy statement on the United Methodist pensions board website says “divestment from the companies perceived as supporting the Israeli occupation is not the proper course of action at this time,” and, “our position is to pursue engagement rather than divestment as a way to promote the cause of human rights in the Middle East and throughout the world.”

No major U.S. denomination has formally divested from firms because of their ties to Israel, although a Quaker investment group reportedly divested in 2012. The Presbyterian Church (USA) had voted to divest in 2004, igniting great controversy, and revoking divestment in 2006. In 2012, the last Presbyterian General Assembly rejected divestment by two votes after a tense debate of several hours.

Meanwhile, also on Friday, a group of prominent Presbyterian clergy and other notables urged their General Assembly to reject divestment and other anti-Israel initiatives. “As pastors and leaders, we are deeply disturbed by the escalating conflict within the PC(USA) over the Church’s policies toward Israel/Palestine,” they wrote, citing a controversial new Presbyterian study guide called “Zionism Unsettled” that accuses Israel of apartheid, indicating Presbyterians “are no longer debating how the occupation should end, but whether Israel should exist.”

The Presbyterian clergy warned that “to argue that any Jewish desire for any form of statehood within their historic homeland is inherently discriminatory is not only patently false but morally indefensible.” They also noted that former Klansmen David Duke has endorsed the Presbyterian study, which is “sickening to us, and should give all Presbyterians great pause in considering the arguments and language of this document and Zionism Unsettled’s ideological relationship to the overtures coming before the General Assembly.”

Besides divestment, Presbyterians will also consider a resolution rejecting a two-state solution in favor of one state in which, the clergy warned, “Jews would no longer have a majority, which means an end to the state of Israel.” They likewise pointed out that the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (“BDS”) Movement against Israel would “bring an end to not just the 1967 occupation of Palestinian lands, but to having an independent state of Israel at all.” They urged their fellow Presbyterians to vote against the “misguided and damaging overtures advocating BDS, alleging apartheid, and reconsidering support for the two-state solution.” Instead they hoped Presbyterians would affirm “strong support for a negotiated two-state solution with a secure, Jewish and democratic Israel alongside a viable, independent Palestine.”

Signers of the Presbyterian appeal included several seminary presidents and former PCUSA moderators plus former longtime New York Times religion reporter Gus Niebuhr, great nephew of the famous public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Hopefully their appeal to moderation will be heeded.

But anti-Israel divestment activists are unrelenting in their campaign. Their claim about United Methodist support, which is nebulous, may not have the intended effect on Presbyterians.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.