The national Presbyterian Church’s recent decision to divest from three companies operating “in the occupied territories” sent shock waves through the Jewish community, but that message was neither heard as loudly nor interpreted as harshly by area Presbyterians.
At the 221st biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in June, a measure to divest from three companies that voters believed profit from “the Israeli occupation of Palestine” was approved by a narrow vote of 310-303. GA members voted to divest specifically from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, while at the same time agreeing not to align itself with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The approved measure, as explained by the Presbyterian Church’s website, calls for “solidarity with Palestinian Christian mission partners and other church partners across the Middle East” in an effort to end the “Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.” It also calls for advocating for the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to live within secure borders.
With nearly 120 Presbyterian churches in the metro D.C. area, and the closeness of the vote, local Presbyterians disagree about the importance and appropriateness of divestment.
“I don’t think BDS is on the radar of many Presbyterians,” said Rev. David Gray, pastor of Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, which shares a building with Bethesda Jewish Congregation. He did not dedicate any of his sermons to divestment during the time of the GA vote. A few people from his church did attend the GA, but they did so without any direction from their church or authority to advocate a position, he explained.
Gray said he does not believe divestment “is helpful, and its disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Change will come only when working with all parties. Divestment won’t help that.”
His congregants do care about Middle East events, he said. “My gut does tell me that the majority of Presbyterians would like to see change in the lives of the Palestinians, but divestment won’t help this.”
They also want security for Israel, he said.
Over at Georgetown Presbyterian Church, congregants did follow the GA vote and are closely following the current conflict between Israel and the Hamas terrorist organization. That Washington, D.C., church plans to hold a town hall meeting in September featuring divestment experts and a discussion of the GA’s vote, said Rev. Camille Cook Murray.
“There are many people here who feel the denomination doesn’t speak [for] them,” she said. “We are not necessarily of one voice.”
The vote to divest “certainly has hit some nerves,” and local Presbyterians are concerned the national vote may hurt their relationships with friends, neighbors and co-workers who are Jewish, she said.
Like Gray, Murray did not sermonize on the GA vote. “It’s not something I have preached, because our congregation is politically diverse,” she explained.
For many years, members of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda and its leadership team “have been in favor of a two-state solution that includes secure borders for Israel and a Palestinian homeland,” Rev. Roy Howard said.
Howard, who stood side by side with area Jews during a rally at the Israeli Embassy in D.C. for the three Israeli teens who were killed on their way home from school, said he believes the Presbyterian Church would be better off playing the role of an impartial broker. He added that he hopes the Presbyterians someday will be able to have a positive influence on the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Saint Mark member and Bethesda resident Vicky Wood didn’t attend the GA, but live-streamed as much of it as she could.
“We are certainly appalled, distressed, unhappy at that vote,” she said. “The GA certainly does not speak for all Presbyterians. As you probably know, the vote was real close.”
She continued: “The people who voted do not understand the ramifications of this vote…I find it very distressing.”
Bethesda Presbyterian Church Rev. Chuck Booker doesn’t see it that way at all. Booker called divestment “a step in the right direction. I think it is a symbolic action that would be helpful.”
Church member Louise Strait said she doesn’t believe that the national church’s vote to divest will bring about peace in the Middle East, but she does agree with the retired ministers who spoke out against allowing their pensions to invest in companies doing business in certain areas of Israel.
Specifically, she singled out Caterpillar, which she blames for bulldozing planned Palestinian land development. “Let’s not have our denomination be involved in that,” she said.
In a statement released to Washington Jewish Week, Caterpillar did not specifically address Strait’s accusation, but said the following:
“As a values based company, Caterpillar has deep respect and compassion for all persons affected by the political strife in the Middle East and support a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. … Caterpillar’s products are designed to improve quality of life.
“The vast majority of the three million plus Caterpillar products in operation around the world are playing a positive role in advancing global economic development and improving standards of living. Understandably, Caterpillar cannot monitor the use of every piece of its equipment around the world. However, we recognize the responsibility companies have to encourage the constructive use of their products.”
Rev. Booker pointed to what he called “illegal settlements” and Israel’s security fence that he said was built through Palestinian areas. “We have to measure our justice with love,” he said.