U.S. Presbyterian Church targets five companies with Israel links

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Haaretz | 6 August 2005

A Presbyterian committee accused five companies of contributing to "ongoing violence that plagues Israel and Palestine" and pledged to use the church's multimillion-dollar stock holdings in the businesses to pressure them to stop. The move Friday follows a vote last year by leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to put economic pressure on companies that profit from Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza. The Church said the companies were selected based on its own developed criteria, namely companies which "support and maintain the occupation; establish, expand, or maintain Israeli settlements; support or facilitate violent acts by Israelis or Palestinians against innocent civilians; and support or facilitate the construction of the Separation Barrier." The group named heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, communications giant Motorola, military contractor United Technologies, and electronics manufacturer ITT Industries - all of which are firms who have been contracted to supply the Israel Defense Forces. The Church also listed international banking conglomerate Citigroup, which was cited in April by The Wall Street Journal for "having moved substantial funds from charities later seen to be fronts funneling money to terrorist organizations," including "funds [which] ended up as payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers." "We have chosen these companies because we believe that they can make changes that will increase the possibilities for a just peace in the region," said Carol Hylkema, who heads a Church subcommittee spearheading divestiture from companies with links to Israel. "As shareholders of these companies, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) calls on them to act responsibly," she said. In a press release, the USPC said it hopes to engage in dialogue and forms of public pressure on shareholders "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, we may conclude that our investments are not being used for activities that support the broad mission of the Church," said church official Bill Somplatsky-Jarman. "At that point, divestment is an option that the General Assembly may consider." The moves comes months after the World Council of Churches, the main global body uniting non-Catholic Christians, encouraged members to sell off investments in companies profiting from Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Council's Central Committee, meeting in Geneva in February, praised the U.S. Presbyterian Church for examining the possibility of divestment in Israel similar to the financial boycott it used against the apartheid regime in South Africa two decades ago. The Presbyterian threat, which echoes divestment debates at some U.S. universities, has set off a wave of dissent in the church and angered American Jewish leaders. But the Central Committee highlighted the divestment push and encouraged other member churches to consider doing the same. The New York Times reported Friday that the Episcopal Church U.S.A. and the United Church of Christ, among others, have praised the move and are also considering divestment as a means of swaying Israeli policy. "This action is commendable in both method and manner, uses criteria rooted in faith, and calls on members to do the `things that make for peace'," the Central Committee said of the Presbyterian Church's move, quoting St. Luke's Gospel. "Economic pressure, appropriately and openly applied, is one such means of action." It was not clear how many of the WCC's 342 Protestant and Orthodox member churches would heed the call. However, in what appears to be a hardening of some Christian groups' stance on the conflict, the Disciples of Christ passed a resolution in July calling on Israel to take down the separation fence, with other churches considering similar resolutions, the Times said. "Multinational corporations have been involved in the demolition of Palestinian homes," the WCC statement said, adding that they were also involved in "the construction of settlements and settlement infrastructure on occupied territory, in building a dividing wall which is also largely inside occupied territory, and in other violations of international law." The Presbyterian Church's General Assembly last July called for a "phased, selective divestment" beginning no earlier than July 2006. A dissident group is asking church leaders to place a moratorium on the project as early as next month. No companies have been singled out, but a report naming the most likely targets is due in August. Human rights groups have urged Caterpillar Inc., the world's largest maker of construction machinery, to stop selling bulldozers to the Israel Defense Forces, saying they are used to wreck innocent Palestinians' homes in Gaza and the West Bank. The occupation "is at the center of the cycle of violence in the region, whether it is suicide bombings or the displacement caused by the occupation... and impedes a peaceful solution to that conflict," the committee now selecting possible divestment targets said recently. It is unclear how much of the church's $8 billion portfolio - investments covering pensions and other holdings controlled by its leadership - might be at issue. Jewish groups are clearly upset. The New York Times reported that some of them have accused the Church of anti-Semitism. "Instead of talking about peace, we're talking about Presbyterians," David Elcott, director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said this month. "They have deflected conversation in a very negative way." The move was also condemned by the Anti-Defamation League. "As we have said repeatedly in conversation with Presbyterian Church leaders," National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement, "divestment policies are counterproductive and a detriment to the newly revived peace initiative between the Israelis and Palestinians, and fundamentally flawed as a mechanism for resolving the conflict. Divestment hurts not only Israel, but has economic impact on Palestinians as well." The 2.5 million-strong church, the ninth largest in the U.S., represents most U.S. Presbyterians.