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Philly Presbyterians Reject Divestment

May 3, 2012 By:
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Rev. William Borror

With the Presbyterian Church USA once again poised to debate divestment from companies that do business in Israel, the Presbytery of Philadelphia has adopted its own resolution that rejects such a stance.

And the local clergy opposed to divestment are taking their opposition a step further: The Philadelphia resolution -- known in church parlance as an overture -- will be presented at this July's national general assembly in Pittsburgh as an alternative to a resolution singling out Israel for divestment.

The Philadelphia document, which passed by a vote of 61 to 39 at a special April 25 meeting, instead urges the 2.4 million-member Protestant church to adopt a more even-handed approach in addressing its concerns over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The measure asks the national church "to reject a strategy of economic coercion that singles out Israel as the source of the conflict and the ongoing obstacle to peace; to respect a policy that goes beyond a constructive critique and condemns Israel as an apartheid state."

Instead, the overture calls on the church to bring American Jews, Christians and Muslims to Israel and the West Bank for study, travel and social action that exposes them to the perspectives of both Israelis and Palestinians.

It also calls for the church to invest in projects that support collaboration between Jews, Christians and Muslims and bolster Palestinian infrastructure in order to create a viable state.

"We also encourage greater denominational engagement with Christians in the West Bank around issues of job creation and economic development," the resolution stated.

Though the Philadelphia Presbytery has, in the past, signed on to resolutions opposing divestment, this was the first time it has offered up its own statement.

Both Presbyterian and Jewish leaders hailed the local decision as a major statement and called it a result of years of frank dialogue and relationship building between the two groups.

In a joint letter, Adam Kessler and Rabbi David Straus, executive director and president, respectively, of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, wrote that "this is quite significant and evidence of how serious our friends at the Presbytery are about the constructive pursuit of peace and about maintaining strong relations with their friends in the Jewish community in Philadelphia."

The issue dates back to 2004, when, at its general assembly in Richmond, Va., church members voted overwhelmingly "to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel."

That rebuke of the Jewish state and its human rights record represented a major victory for the then-nascent boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement, known as BDS, and encouraged several other liberal Protestant churches to pursue a similar course.

Following a strong push back from the Jewish community, as well as from many individual Presbyterians and church leaders, the denomination essentially reversed itself at its 2006 general assembly.

Since then, the divestment issue has come up every two years at the assembly and so far has been voted down. But this year, church insiders say, a narrower divestment resolution stands a strong chance of passage.

The one being debated this summer calls for the church to divest its holdings from Motorola, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar because of what is perceived as their roles in the demolition of Palestinian homes, construction of the security barrier and overall Israeli presence in the West Bank.

Rev. William Borror of Media Presbyterian Church has been speaking to local Jewish leaders since the controversy erupted eight years ago and has emerged as a national voice in opposition to divestment.

Borror -- who has traveled to Israel with JCRC and plans to return this summer for an American Jewish Committee-sponsored program -- also helped spearhead the local resolution. The AJC and Anti-Defamation League have also been active in reaching out to local Presbyterians.

"We have a responsibility to continue to be involved in things that promote peace and well-being among people of different faiths and different opinions," said Borror, who earlier this year joined Christian clergy members in signing a statement opposing the BDS conference at Penn.

Borror said he feels strongly that his denomination should not be siding so determinedly with the Palestinians in a conflict that's complicated and has produced so much suffering.

He's also critical of evangelical Christian groups that are so pro-Israel that they sometimes espouse positions to the right of the Israeli government.

Barry Creech, a church spokesman, said the competing divestment resolutions will be sent to a general assembly subcommittee, which will make recommendations to the larger body.

It's "much too early to predict" what will happen, Creech wrote in an email. "I do know that they will hear information on every side of the issue, and then make a decision as to the best way to move forward."

Rabbi Mark Robbins, AJC's area director, said he's heard through his contacts that the resolution in favor of divestment will likely pass but he hopes the Philadelphia alternative will "have an effect on how the general assembly votes come the summer time."

Noting that the divestment issue refuses to go away, Borror said he often tells Jews that he's "not sure why you want to be friends with us. We are a very divided people and unfortunately, these issues are often the flash point."

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