by Carolyn Klaasen (pictured above, left, with Union M.Div. student Emily Brewer)
On June 20 I sat in the stands of the Cobo Convention Center in Detroit, hands gripping those of my neighbor, waiting as the votes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) were slowly tallied on screen. When the final number appeared, those of us sitting in the stands collapsed in tears and hugs. By a narrow margin of seven votes, the PC (USA) had just decided to divest $21 million from three American companies tied to the occupation of the West Bank.
This vote made the PC (USA) the largest denomination to divest from companies related to the occupation, and was front-page news in the New York Times the next morning. Since then, the church has faced a heavy backlash as Jewish communal institutions have decried the measure as anti-Semitic, accused the Presbyterians of unjustly singling out Israel, or portrayed the church as an unwitting pawn in the global Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. (For the record, I align myself with that movement; the Presbyterians do not. Learn more here.)
Those of us who were Jews at the Assembly have been accused of providing “cover” for the Presbyterians, manipulating our Presbyterian partners, or ignored altogether as reports selectively quote Jews opposed to this measure.
What I have experienced as I joined the Presbyterians on the tail end of their decade-long journey to divestment, however, tells a rather different story. It is a tale of integrity, as Presbyterians have worked to align their investments with their conscience and honor their global and interfaith partners throughout that process.
The story begins at the 2004 General Assembly, when the Presbyterians directed their Commission on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) to identify and begin a process of corporate engagement with any companies involved in non-peaceful pursuits in Israel, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. This is a familiar process for the church, which has a long and proud history of corporate engagement and socially responsible investing. Presbyterians maintain a divestment list of companies involved in the production of military supplies, complicit in human rights violations, or that produce tobacco. It has previously engaged with and finally divested from corporations because of their actions in specific countries, including South Africa and Sudan. Given the church’s longstanding commitment to a just peace in Israel/Palestine, as well as its cherished relationships with interfaith partners and Arab Christians, the church was understandably concerned with the question of whether its own investments in the region were at odds with its goals of pursuing peace.
The Commission identified three American companies within the church’s portfolio engaged in non-peaceful pursuits in the region: Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are included within military aid to Israel, weaponized, and used to illegally uproot Palestinian homes and olive trees; Motorola Solutions, which develops surveillance systems installed around Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank; and Hewlett-Packard, which provides ongoing support and maintenance to biometric ID systems installed at Israeli checkpoints within the West Bank.
During the years that MRTI engaged these corporations they not only refused to change their practices, but in some cases actually increased their participation in these non-peaceful pursuits. MRTI finally declared that these three corporations were unwilling to change their practices, and recommended that the church divest all of its shares.
One of the truly powerful commitments of the Presbyterian Church is that it does not act in a vacuum, and as they met this year to consider divestment they welcomed in dozens of multifaith and international partners to be present and active in their discernment process. This included a full spectrum of Jewish opinions, which was how I ended up at General Assembly along with other members of Jewish Voice for Peace. We joined forces with interfaith activists on the ground in Detroit as well as advocates for divestment within the Presbyterian Church, including my good friend and fellow Union student Emily Brewer, to form a coalition of Interfaith Partners in Action. Amidst threats from Jewish community leaders that a vote to divest would endanger the church’s interfaith relationships, our coalition modeled our hopes for respect and partnership among our religious traditions in working together for justice.
Multiple times throughout the week, our Jewish delegation was moved to tears by our experiences in this coalition. In our conversations with commissioners and advisory delegates, we shared our own stories of discernment. As they asked for advice, we repeatedly told them “follow your conscience. You don’t need my permission to do what you think is right.”
We prayed with our Presbyterian partners, both privately and publically, as we sought strength and calm during the hardest moments of the week. We helped each other laugh off the hate tweets and messages we received from opponents of divestment, reaffirming our commitments to modeling love in the face of conflict. As news of the escalating crackdown in the West Bank poured in, we compared news and shared our worries. And when the Assembly voted in favor of gay marriage, we enjoyed the unexpected privilege of sharing in the celebration with our Presbyterian partners.
I was especially happy to be there with fellow Union friends, not only working closely with Emily Brewer but also cheering on Samantha Gonzalez-Block as she argued for divestment from fossil fuels, celebrating the adoption of a statement on interfaith relations that alumnus Aaron Stauffer helped craft, and chatting with PhD student Derrick McQueen during breaks.
When the motion concerning divestment came to the floor, we listened with sympathy as Presbyterians shared their fears and concerns. Would Caterpillar employees who were members of the church feel rejected? How would this impact their cherished relationships with Jewish family members, friends, and colleagues? Would their actions be misinterpreted as divestment from Israel? We silently cheered on commissioners as they spoke in favor of divestment, arguing that the church could not pray for peace while investing in occupation. A white Afrikaner thanked the church for divesting from South African apartheid 30 years earlier, stating that “when you divested from apartheid, you invested in my humanity.”
By the time debate ended and it was time to vote, those of us sitting in the stands gripping each others’ hands had come to deeply love our partners and had tremendous respect for the process of discernment we had witnessed. Despite what some have said, this was not a decision made out of naiveté, maliciousness, or hubris. What unfolded was rather a prayerful and inclusive struggle that left no voice out of the discussion as this church sought to follow its conscience.