DETROIT — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Friday became the most prominent religious group in the United States to endorse divestment as a protest against Israeli policies toward Palestinians, voting to sell church stock in three companies whose products Israel uses in the occupied territories.
The General Assembly voted by a razor-thin margin to sell the church’s stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. The final tally was 310-303, or 51 percent in favor and 49 percent against.
Two years ago, the General Assembly rejected a similar divestment proposal by two votes.
The value of the Presbyterian holdings in the three companies is estimated at $21 million, according to a church spokeswoman.
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The decision by the denomination’s top policymaking body is expected to reverberate well beyond the church. It comes amid discouragement over failed peace talks that have left activists desperate for some way to affect change, and as the broader movement known as BDS — or boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel — has gained some momentum in the U.S., Israel’s closest and most important ally.
The measure that was passed called not only for divestment but also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a two-state solution, encouraged interfaith dialogue and travel to the Holy Land, and instructed the church to undertake “positive investment” in endeavors that advance peace and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.
The language was written by the church’s 65-member Middle East committee.
Presbyterians who advocated for divestment insisted their action was not linked to the broader BDS movement, a global network of activists with varying goals ranging from boycotting Israeli companies and institutions to targeting Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israeli officials, along with many American Jewish groups and their supporters, have denounced the campaign as an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state.
Frank Allen of the Central Florida Presbytery, who led an effort to strike down the divestment proposal, said: “Divestment is not a good tool for peacemaking,” and would alienate Presbyterians from the Jewish community.
“God’s beloved children are on all sides of this conflict,” Allen said. “Divestment will not end the conflict and bring peace. Divestment will create dissension. Dialogue and relationship building will lay the groundwork for true peace.”
Bill Ward, of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest, based in Spokane, said the proposal was not an attack on Israel. The measure reaffirms Israel’s right to exist.
“It is motivated by stewardship integrity, not partisan political advocacy. It is not anti-Israel nor is it pro-Palestinian beyond the matter of human rights. It is decidedly not anti-Semitic,” Ward said.
The Presbyterian Church (USA), with nearly 1.8 million members, has been losing members and influence in recent decades, in part from wrenching debates over whether to ordain gay clergy members and permit same-sex marriages, a step the assembly approved Thursday.
At least two smaller U.S. religious groups have divested in protest of Israeli policies. In 2012, Friends Fiduciary, which manages assets for U.S. Quakers, sold its holdings in three companies that sold products to the Israeli military. A year later, the Mennonite Central Committee voted unanimously to divest in response to requests from “partners in Palestine and Israel.”
Last week, the pension board of the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant group in the U.S., revealed plans to sell its holdings worth about $110,000 in G4S, which provides security equipment and has contracts with Israel’s prison system. However, the United Methodist Church had rejected churchwide divestment, as have the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Motorola Solutions said the company follows the law and its own policies that address human rights.
Hewlett-Packard said “respecting human rights is a core value at HP” and that its checkpoints for Palestinians were developed to expedite passage “in a secure environment.”
Caterpillar has said it does not sell equipment to Israel, just to the U.S. government.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.