Presbyterians meet and decide

June 20, 2006

In News

by Toya Richards Hill

BIRMINGHAM — A plethora of voices took to the microphone Friday to speak to committee members about Israel/Palestine and divestment. They included a 2004 General Assembly (GA) commissioner who felt blindsided by the divestment action approved in Richmond, VA, and a teenage boy who recounted his face-to-face experience with Palestinians restricted from travel.

“I cannot understand how something explained to us on the floor (in 2004) about a study on possible action … has become divestment,” the Rev. George J. McIlrath, pastor of All Villages Presbyterian Church in St. Lucie West, FL., told the GA peacemaking and international issues committee during open hearings.

He told the committee of how he and other commissioners did not have information on the divestment overture in enough time to adequately study it, and McIlrath said he regrets he “wasn’t nimble enough to file a protest.”

“I come to talk about process and fairness,” he told the committee.

McIlrath was not alone in his questioning of the 216th General Assembly’s call to begin the process of phased, selective divestment from multinational corporations doing business that promotes violence in Israel and Palestine.

One by one, those opposing the phased, selective divestment action currently underway made their views known to the committee, urging members to accept overtures before them calling for an end to the process.

“Divestment will permanently damage our relationship with the Jewish community,” said the Rev. Douglas Hucke, pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Peoria, IL.

His church is located in the same city as bulldozer manufacturer Caterpillar Inc., one of five corporations being engaged in talks in order to get them to change their business practices in Israel/Palestine.

Caterpillar’s equipment is used by the Israeli military and privately owned companies under contract with Israeli government authorities for such things as the demolition of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of olive trees.

Hucke talked about the close relationship many of his members have with Caterpillar, and said, “the anger is simmering and it is volatile” among congregants upset by the denomination’s actions.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wondered how human-rights atrocities can occur in such countries as China and Rwanda, yet the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has chosen to focus on Israel.

“Israel is isolated, alone,” he said. “We must have a sense of fairness.”

The views in favor of continuing the divestment action were equally as poignant.

“This is not a referendum on Hamas,” said Norman Finkelstein, who lost family members in the Holocaust. “It’s a referendum on truth and justice. The truth is … Israel has accumulated a horrendous record of human rights.”

Chad Ellertson, a teenager who was part of a group of Presbyterians who toured Israel and Palestine in April, asked simply, “Who will speak from behind the wall?”

The committee also heard from a cousin of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old human rights worker who was crushed and killed in March 2003 in the Gaza Strip by a bulldozer made by Caterpillar.

And they heard from Palestinian Noura Erakat, who talked of the 26-foot-high concrete barrier the Israeli government is building.

“That wall was built using Caterpillar bulldozers,” she said. And those bulldozers “are equipped with machine gun mounts.”

Alan Villesvik, a member of North Puget Sound Presbytery in Washington, talked about the unequal system that exists for Israelis and Palestinians, with the lion’s share of resources going to Israelis.

“The present configuration of land … is one-sided,” he said, pointing out that all of the water is controlled by the Israeli side. “If we are going to have peace there, it has to be a just peace.”

“Whatever we do, we have to work for a solution that makes two states possible. Divestment at least has caught the world’s attention, and that’s why I am for it.”

The peacemaking and international issues committee also heard comments on international-related overtures pertaining to Haiti, Sudan/Darfur, malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa, Taiwan/China and international trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children. The body will continue its work Saturday.