the 221st General Assembly

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Divestment is Nothing


Divestment is nothing; non-divestment is nothing.

Eight years ago this July, the 216th General Assembly earned its fifteen minutes of fame when it instructed its Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI):

“to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance to General Assembly policy on social investing, and to make appropriate recommendations to the General Assembly Council for action.”

When the Presbyterian News Service covered the event, the headline read, “Assembly endorses Israel divestment”.

Over the years – partly in response to negative feedback – various denominational officials, staff, news outlets have made many false (less than forthcoming) claims about this action. For example, it has often been falsely reported that this was limited to those companies “whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli”. That qualifier is simply not present in the item passed by the GA 216.

Like corpses in Night of the Living Dead the divestment issue has come hobbling back to every subsequent General Assembly. This year is, of course, no exception. And every two years, proponents of divestment act as if they are supporting some moral action that is any less unfair, unhelpful, unoriginal, and vapid than it was the time before. And every two years, opponents of divestment act as if they are fighting off unreasonable forces on the fringe of the church. And every two years, both sides manage to somehow or other claim victory for their efforts.

The problem is, divestment gets headlines outside of the PC(USA). It is something people can understand and react to. Meanwhile, the PC(USA)’s tortured witness on Palestinians and Israelis has far more serious problems and sinister overtones that simply can’t get traction. It is plagued by unrelenting and easily documented bias; it has at times employed (and thus legitimated) anti-Judaic themes; and it has at times crossed the line into classical antisemitic discourse. All of this gets a big yawn …. Nonetheless, I am compelled to observe that if the same types of statements and actions were directed at any other ethnic or religious group in the world, they would be met with Presbyterian outrage.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Divestment already happened … at least, the only meaningful part of it happened. The decision was made in 2004; the Presbyterian process of divestment – phased, selective divestment – was launched in 2004. Only one General Assembly has intervened. In 2006 the 217th General Assembly replaced the divestment instruction with the following:

“urge that financial investments of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, be invested in only peaceful pursuits, and affirm that the customary corporate engagement process of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investments of our denomination is the proper vehicle for achieving this goal.”

They appear to have intended the MRTI to set aside its work resulting from the 2004 instruction that singled out Israel for treatment distinct from and inferior to that applied to every other nation. But GA 217 seems to have figured without the MRTI – which continued its phased, selective divestment process uninterrupted. (For the uninitiated, “corporate engagement” and “phased, selective divestment” are, in PC(USA)land, one and the same.) The two subsequent General Assemblies have confirmed the MRTI in this work.

Bottom line: if the divestment recommendation passes this year, it will be nothing more or less than the successful outworking of the MRTI process initiated in 2004. It will not be news; it will not be a new decision. And, as the Board of Pensions pointed out, the PC(USA) will continue to own stock in the targeted companies AFTER the GA approves the recommendation … that is, if the PC(USA) in fact owns stock in the companies to begin with. The Board of Pensions has a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best financial interests of its members: so they will not sell a holding until it is advantageous to do so. And they may, under certain circumstances, purchase an MRTI forbidden item in the future.

That is not to say that a decision to place CAT, HPQ, MSI on the PC(USA)’s divestment list will be entirely without effect. It will do some things, and it will not accomplish others.

What a GA 220 divestment decision will not do:

  1. It will not harm the targeted companies. In fact, since the PC(USA) holds “a small portfolio of securities outside the Benefits Plan” solely for the purpose of proposing shareholder resolutions, since the PC(USA) insists on numerous meetings with company representatives to discuss Presbyterian criticisms, and since MRTI demands have been sometimes unreasonable … I’d imagine divestment targets would be just as happy to see the back of the PC(USA).
  2. Presbyterian divestment alone will not break the back of the Israeli economy. The PC(USA) is simply too small a player for their holdings to have any significant impact.
  3. Presbyterians will not suddenly have morally good investments in their pension funds and be able to sleep better at night. Presbyterians will continue to profit from harm and suffering just as they always have. Any sizable portfolio has holdings that, were they thoroughly investigated, would be found – either through their business practices, employee policies, or their products and services – to be morally dubious. In fact, the specific companies targeted by the MRTI have, in some regards, better policies than those of many companies NOT targeted.
  4. No Palestinian (and no Israeli) will be helped in any meaningful way by Presbyterian divestment.

What a GA 220 divestment decision will do:

  1. People outside the PC(USA) will see and recognize this as a symbolic gesture. It is kind of like a panto … in which scary looking Caterpillar products (and Israelis) appear on stage in order to get boos and hisses while courageous and prophetic Presbyterians speaking truth to power are greeted with cheers by adoring crowds.
  2. The PC(USA) will be more closely married to an international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. This General Assembly is also slated to consider boycotting a couple of items; and the PC(USA) is on the record as supporting some types of sanctions against Israel. In theory, some of the goals and objectives of the broader BDS movement are incompatible with PC(USA) statements, but trying to be “just a little bit BDS” will prove an impossible line for Presbyterians to walk.
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