Should Churches Divest?

The Presbyterian Church (

The Presbyterian Church (USA) began a process last year to scrutinize the church’s investments in selected U.S. corporations doing business in the Israeli Occupied Territories. Now that other U.S. denominations (and universities) are discussing similar proposals, the Presbyterian experience offers a useful model concerning its content, timing, ethical dimensions, and the opposition it has generated.

Within a month of the PC (USA) decision, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz attacked the church in a L.A. Times article, claiming the "Presbyterian Church (USA) has committed a grievous sin" with its decision that "effectively calls for the end of Israel." Chicago Tribune writer Ron Grossman placed the decision in the context of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Holocaust.

By fall 2004, a climate of mistrust and tension had developed between the Presbyterian Church and mainstream Jewish organizations, despite national and regional discussions where the church sought to explain all aspects of the decision. In early October 2004, denomination headquarters and churches nationwide received an arson threat that claimed churches would be targeted on a particular weekend. Fortunately, there were no terrorist attacks, and several Jewish organizations condemned the threat.

The Presbyterian Church has issued resolutions on the Middle East since 1948, when it affirmed the creation of the State of Israel while calling for justice for the Palestinians. Since 1967, the church has called for a diplomatic solution based on two states and an end to Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Repeatedly, the church has affirmed Israel’s right to exist while condemning violence by both sides. It has also called for an end to Israel’s occupation and settlement strategy, calling the latter "illegal" and an obstacle to peace.

BY THE TIME the Oslo peace process collapsed in the summer of 2000, the number of Israel’s settlements had doubled, violence by both sides had accelerated, and peace seemed like an unreachable goal. With Israel’s subsequent construction of the "separation wall" that allows Israel to seize a sizable percentage of the West Bank and separates East Jerusalem from the West Bank, many Israeli and Palestinian analysts believe the two-state option is over. Moreover, since the occupation began in 1967, the exodus of Christian Palestinians has reduced their numbers from 13 percent of Palestinians (in Jerusalem and the West Bank) to a mere 4 percent by 2000. Today Palestinian Christians fear their numbers have dropped to less than 2 percent. The primary reasons for the emigration are the occupation and the lack of a just peace.

The decision to begin a review of PC (USA) stock in U.S. corporations is a direct response to this crisis. Through this process, the Presbyterian church is stating that if there is no response to its appeals to the Palestinian, Israeli, and U.S. governments, then the church will seek to refrain from profiting from another people’s suffering.

As was the case with its investments in the arms and tobacco industries, in Sudan, and in apartheid South Africa, the church has asked its Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee to investigate the church’s portfolio to ascertain whether there are goods or technologies represented that might bring harm to Israeli or Palestinian civilians. If the committee finds irrefutable evidence that a particular industry is transferring such goods or technologies, the committee will recommend that that industry change its policy. If a policy change is made, the committee will take no further action. If there is no change, then a recommendation to divest from that industry will be submitted to the denomination.

Despite the accusations of Dershowitz and others, the Presbyterian Church did not embark upon a blanket divestment or a boycott of Israel. Nor is the church "targeting Jews" in this process, as some have claimed. While the decision has created tension between Presbyterians and major Jewish organizations, perhaps this is an opportunity for both communities to move beyond polite dialogue (and relative silence about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) to a deep and difficult discussion about justice in the Middle East.

The Presbyterian Church first and foremost made a moral decision at the request of our sister churches and Jewish, Muslim, and Christian human rights organizations. The focus is on U.S. and multinational corporations that might be endangering the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians, not on Israeli firms or the Israeli people. The church believes it is legitimate for a church body and for individuals to criticize their own government and other governments when it is believed that policies or resources are being used in a manner that is inconsistent with international law and with the denomination’s own criteria for moral investments.

At least five Jewish organizations have praised the church’s decision, including Jewish Voice for Peace, Rabbi Michael Lerner and the Tikkun movement, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. In this process the Presbyterian Church is standing with these courageous organizations, and others such as the respected Israeli human rights organization "B’Tselem," in calling Israel back to its prophetic heritage. There cannot be two standards of justice, one for Israelis and another for Palestinians. Palestinian homes cannot be destroyed while illegal Israeli settlements are expanding on Palestinian land. And Palestinian officials cannot turn their heads and ignore the wanton destruction of civilians by suicide bombers. Such practices will not bring security to Israel or justice to Palestine.

Why now? Some have argued that the timing of the Presbyterians’ decision will undermine the delicate peace process now underway. Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip could be an important initial step toward peace; but meanwhile the Sharon government is completing the illegal separation wall and expanding its settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Palestinian homes continue to be demolished, while unemployment among Palestinians escalates toward 60 percent in many areas. While the "Road Map for Middle East Peace" calls for a viable Palestinian state and a cessation of Israel’s settlement expansion, it now appears that the proposed Palestinian state will be riddled with Israeli settlements and bypass roads available only to Israeli settlers. Such a state will only serve to exacerbate the climate of violence and oppression.

With this in mind, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been urged by its sister churches throughout the Middle East and by Israeli and Palestinian peace organizations to do more than pass annual resolutions that sit on shelves and have no impact. This prophetic stand for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians is controversial, but it is also morally right and consistent with the criteria that the church has adopted for other situations.

Israel and the United States are now at the peak of their military powers and are together unrivaled in the Middle East. If their power is directed more toward domination than justice, then violence will escalate and we will be the targets of those who hate us. We must begin now to take small and difficult nonviolent steps that call us back to the "things that make for peace," so that justice and mercy will begin to flow for all of the people of the Middle East - Jews, Muslims, and Christians - rather than a privileged few at the expense of the many.

Don Wagner was a Presbyterian minister, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and a professor at North Park University in Chicago when this article appeared. For more on the divestment movement of the Presbyterian Church (USA) go to

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