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Jul-10-2012 13:10printcomments

Pro-Divestment Presbyterians Win By Losing

What happened, as one Presbyterian participant explained, was “complicated”.

The picture above is from the 220th General Assembly
The picture above is from the 220th General Assembly

(CHICAGO) - Do you really want to know what happened at the just-concluded 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian U.S.A. denomination?

As a veteran watcher of Protestant church political struggles, I urge you to remember that neither the cross nor the crown are free of an eagerness to grasp deliberate obfuscation in struggling to win each political battle. The winner of the obfuscation battle in Pittsburgh was, hands down, the anti-divestment crowd. The pro-divestment crowd, on the other hand, won by losing a key vote in the Assembly.

The presumed “winners”, the anti-divestment forces, operated with a strategy that set up a “stalking horse” to enter the field of battle.

Faced with the huge problem of how to persuade delegates to vote against basic human rights for Palestinians living under occupation, the anti-divesment forces created a “stalking horse” of “investments that will benefit Palestinians”.

Seriously, that is what they put forward. Bring American money into the prisons that are the West Bank and Gaza. This will make life a little easier for the prisoners, extra deserts for lunch, you know, that sort of thing.

So it was that the battle was joined, investment, a positive sounding action for those who worship the market, versus divestment, a negative sounding word because it is a non-violent action that goes to the heart of the sin of occupation.

The anti-divestment leaders at Pittsburgh had to avoid letting three U.S.corporations–Caterpillar,Motorola Systems and Hewlett-Packard–become targets of church censure through church divestment.

The church leaders who have great respect for corporate America are motivated in part, by the wisdom of Willie Sutton, who once said, “I rob banks because that’s where the money is”.

Maintaining harmony with local rabbis is one of those motherhood and apple pie certainties.

The violation of the human rights of an entire population, versus harmony with one’s neighbors, is not a case you want to have to make. Turns out, however, a factor working for the pro-harmony forces at Pittsburgh was the mindset of American voters, religious and secular.

Harmony promoters had a huge advantage. They were dealing with voters who are conditioned to believe what they see in the movies. What the American movie-going public has seen of Arabs since the movies were born, is a steady stream of anti-Arab propaganda, from the mysterious wealthy sheiks to the more recent linking of “terrorists” with Muslims.

Jack Shaheen (pictured here) has documented this phenomenon is a remarkable series of books, the best known of which is his marvelously titled, Reel Bad Arabs.

Shaheen’s influence extends beyond his lectures and books. He was a consultant on two Hollywood films which broke from the anti-Arab pattern which Shaheen has documented in most Hollywood fare.

Check out two of the films on which Shaheen consulted, Syriana and Three Kings, both of which show Arabs as fully human.

Shaheen, whose family is from Lebanon, has been a lone voice in American film criticism and scholarship fighting against the negative connotations of Arabs in American culture.

Pro-Palestinian forces at Pittsburgh were fighting an uphill struggle to win support for divestment from Presbyterian delegates who had been shaped from childhood to think that Muslims are simply not “one of us”, a false representation which is easily exploited by political strategists, both religious and secular.

Think, for example of the “search” for Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

Which brings us to the remarkable chain of events that transpired during this year’s 220th General Assembly when.

What happened, as one Presbyterian participant explained, was “complicated”.

The Associated Press described the key GA vote this way:

    By a razor-thin margin, the largest Presbyterian group in the United States rejected a proposal Thursday to divest from three companies that do business with Israel.

    Pro-Palestinian advocates vowed to try again.

    The Presbyterian General Assembly voted 333-331, with two abstentions, to reject the divestment plan. A second vote instead affirmed a policy of investment in support of peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories. That proposal passed by a much wider margin, 369-290 with eight abstentions.

This was the AP story used by ABC News. AP gives the anti-divestment spin with this incorrect description of what was in the resolution, “to divest from three companies that do business with Israel”, dropping the major point of contention.

The resolution was not directed against all companies that do “business with Israel”. It was aimed at three companies that directly support Israel’s occupation, a fact which AP did not include in its story

The AP story also says nothing about the occupation. Israel does not like to call what they do an “occupation”.

This, of course, is what leads to bloggers like Robert Naiman, who works as policy director for Just Foreign Policy, a progressive web site, to give us his version of how the anti-divestment spin is so totally shaped by the Israeli narrative.

The headline in his Huffington Post blog says it all: “Likudniks Losing Middle America”. Naiman explains:

    “No doubt many among what Peter Beinart calls “the American Jewish establishment” celebrated the result. They had pulled out the stops to block the Presbyterians’ selective divestment move. 1300 rabbis and 22,000 other Jews wrote to the Presbyterians, falsely seeking to characterize the proposed move as “the use of economic leverages against the Jewish state.”

    Yet as The Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the PCUSA General Assembly, explained in the Washington Post, the resolution was opposed to specific actions of particular companies linked to the occupation, leaving investments in many other companies doing business in Israel untouched. And therefore, claims that the Presbyterians were contemplating “divesting from Israel” or “boycotting Israel” were disinformation; disinformation that, in the short-run, may have proved successful.

    But as the Sergeant said to the Pirate King [in The Pirates of Penzance],

‘To gain a brief advantage you’ve contrived/But your proud triumph will not be long-lived.’”

The fact that the “American Jewish establishment” could only muster a two-vote majority at the PCUSA General Assembly shows what the future holds for the Likudniks if they do not change their policies towards the Palestinians.

“Losing Middle America” is not the way Israel wants the GA Assembly story to read. Little of that sentiment is found in the main stream U.S. media.

As one astute veteran of General Assembly politics observed, there really was no vote on the majority report that came before the General Assembly. The 333-331 vote was on the minority report.

The leaders of the pro-investment forces at the GA succeeded in technically refusing to allow a debate on the majority report by substituting the minority motion for “positive investment”, a term favored by the anti-divestment forces.

As a result, the substitute motion was the only resolution voted on by the GA.

This was hardly the victory for Israel and its American backers which was claimed by main stream U.S and Israeli media. A more important defeat for Israel came when the GA voted 457 to 180 to call on Presbyterians to boycott Israeli businesses operating on occupied territory.

Two Israeli companies the GA voted to boycott, Ahava and the Hadiklaim Dates Co-op, were identified, indicating that 70% of the delegates wanted to name names when they are Israeli names, but turned away, narrowly, when U.S. companies targeted for divestment were named.

The Presbyterians fell far short of being social justice prophets in the distinction they were quick to make between supporting divestment of the church’s own funds, which lost by two votes, and a boycott of Israeli companies, which is an individual conscience thing, a strong statement to be sure, but still not one with fiscal teeth.

Ironically, a final resolution did pass that instructed the church’s Pension Board to work out a system through which individual pensioners could opt out of having their pension funds used in the targeted three U.S corporations.

That resolution was reported in some media outlets as binding, until it was ruled out of order because the resolution ran afoul of GA parliamentary rules. The “conscience” clause was well-meaning, but obviously unworkable. Pension funds are in a large pool. They are not invested as individual accounts.

These 2012 GA Assembly votes on Israel/Palestine were, at bottom, a win for the church’s pro-Palestinian faction. The victory is not yet complete, however, until the GA takes action with fiscal teeth.

Fortunately, the Assembly meets every two years, unlike the United Methodist General Conference which meets every four years. The 2014 GA will be held in Detroit, Michigan, an urban area which has a large number of Palestinian-American citizens.

Get ready for organizations like the Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) which will no doubt be back again armed with resolutions that will again have fiscal teeth.

We close with the wisdom of Gilbert and Sullivan, cited above by Robert Naiman:

    To gain a brief advantage you’ve contrived,
    But your proud triumph will not be long-lived.

Please visit Jim's Website: Wall Writings


Journalism was Jim Wall’s undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. An ordained United Methodist clergy person; he and his wife, Mary Eleanor, are the parents of three sons, and the grandparents of four grandchildren. They live in Elmhurst, Illinois.

Jim served for two years on active duty in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF (inactive) reserve. While serving with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years, starting in 1972. Time magazine wrote about the new editor, who arrived at the Christian Century determined to turn the magazine into a hard-hitting news publication. The inspiration for Wall Writings comes from that mindset and from many other sources that have influenced Jim’s writings over the years, including politics, cinema, media, American culture, and the political struggles in the Middle East. Jim has made more than 20 trips to that region as a journalist, during which he covered such events as Anwar Sadat’s 1977 trip to Jerusalem, and the 2006 Palestinian legislative election. He has interviewed, and written about, journalists, religious leaders, political leaders and private citizens in the region. You can write to Jim Wall at


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