June 27, 2006

In News

By: Mitchell Plitnick, Cecilie Surasky
Jewish Voice for Peace

We here at Jewish Voice for Peace headquarters have been absolutely stunned by the Orwellian headlines and poor reporting about this week’s Presbyterian General Assembly vote to use economic pressure to end the occupation. It’s an almost exact replay of the 2004 General Assembly when most media outlets got the Presbyterian decision wrong, falsely proclaiming that the church had voted to divest from Israel. In a sense, this misrepresentation builds on the earlier one.

In 2004 the Presbyterians voted to begin a process of phased corporate engagement, including investigating selective divestment, from companies that profit from the occupation. Yesterday they reaffirmed that vote. They did not rescind it, as has been reported. Nor was the 2004 vote a decision to embark on a divestment program, as was reported back then. It was a decision to investigate the various ways the PCUSA could use economic pressure to help bring about a just peace in Israel-Palestine.

At JVP, the folks most upset about the poor reporting are people like Judith Kolokoff from our Seattle chapter, who along with Mo Shooer of the Bay Area, represented JVP at the General Assembly in Birmingham, AL.

Judith told us, “I have great respect for PCUSA because they did not back down from their traditionally principled positions in spite of the horrendous attacks against them organized by the 12 powerful Jewish mainline organizations who totally misrepresented their actions in the 2004 assembly. I know that the alternative voice of the American Jewish community (our voice) as well the voices of our allies from Israel and the Palestine were hard….and ultimately the loud voices of justice were able to prevail.’

What the 2006 General Assembly vote did NOT change

Clearly, the Church has no intention of backing down from making a powerful moral judgment about the occupation. Despite overwhelming pressure to rescind their vote, the Presbyterian GA reaffirmed their policy of using economic pressure to help bring an end to Israel’s occupation in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a policy that JVP has long supported both in other groups and with our own shareholder activism with Caterpillar. The PCUSA voted overwhelmingly to continue the same process of corporate engagement they started in 2004. This means, as in 2004, the process could still end in a vote for divestment in 2008, and, just like in 2004, that is a measure of last resort. They also reaffirmed their opposition to the portions of the wall being built on pre-1967 territory, and their commitment to ending the occupation not only in Gaza and the West Bank, but also in East Jerusalem. It’s difficult to imagine why many organizations that work overtime to block critics of the occupation are crowing about this as a success. But perhaps the truth just hurts too much.

What changed

One of the most striking changes was the inclusion of an admission that the decision in 2004 had “caused hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion….We are grieved by the pain that this has caused, accept responsibility for the flaws in our process, and ask for a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.”

Relating to divestment, the most significant change was in language used to describe the longstanding Presbyterian process used to pressure companies linked to human rights abuses in various countries.The 2004 language was this:

“7. Refers to Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) with instructions to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance to General Assembly policy on social investing, and to make appropriate recommendations to the General Assembly Council for action.”

As of yesterday, The new language is this:

“7. To urge that financial investments of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, be invested in only peaceful pursuits, and affirm that the customary corporate engagement process of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investments of our denomination is the proper vehicle for achieving this goal.”

As you can see, the vote was an affirmation that the ‘customary corporate engagement process’, which opens the door to divestment, ‘is the proper vehicle for achieving this goal.’ It should also be noted that the GA voted this year to use this very same corporate engagement process in the context of Sudan.

To be sure, this is a softening of the divestment language, and it means the push to get the PCUSA to apply firm economic pressure to end the occupation needs to intensify. But it is also a far cry from revoking the 2004 decision, as the media and some pro-occupation groups are portraying it.

Jewish Voice for Peace applauds the Presbyterians for standing fast to their principles while also showing that they are willing to go the extra mile to maintain positive relationships with Jews across the spectrum of our community. The vote this week means that the issue of economic pressure will almost certainly come up again in 2008. We are urging all of our members and supporters to engage with their local Presbyterian churches and with friends, colleagues and associates who are Presbyterian. Tell them that an end to occupation that leaves Palestinians viable territory and a real chance to build their own future is in the best interests of Israelis, Palestinians, and Jews and Arabs the world over. Urge them to support even-handed and fair-minded methods of economic pressure to bring about an end to this awful conflict that has wasted so many lives.

Read the entire statement yourself here

Click here to donate to JVP and help us continue the work of ending the occupation

For a just peace,

Cecilie Surasky
Mitchell Plitnick
Jewish Voice for Peace