Presbyterian Church committee advances divestment resolution


A committee of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) passed a resolution endorsing divestment from three U.S. companies that “profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.”

The Middle East Issues Committee, in a 45-20 vote on June 17 at the church’s 221st General Assembly, advanced the measure to divest from Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Motorola Solutions. The resolution likely will be voted on during a plenary session of the full assembly later this week.

At the 2012 church assembly, delegates rejected a divestment initiative by a vote of 333-331. Jewish-Presbyterian relations already were strained following the publication in January of a study guide created by the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network. The document, “Zionism Unsettled,” depicted Zionism as a false theology.

Meanwhile, a letter opposing divestment signed by more than 1,700 rabbis, cantors and Jewish seminary students is being circulated at the assembly. The open letter, which has signers from all 50 states and the major streams of Judaism, urges commissioners to reject divestment from companies operating in Israel and other anti-Israel resolutions.

“We are deeply concerned that the PCUSA is considering several overtures that would threaten the prospects for future peace,” the letter says. “Oversimplifying a complex conflict and placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility, increases conflict and division instead of promoting peace, reconciliation and mutual understanding.”

The letter goes on to say, “If we truly want to help both parties, we should encourage reconciliation, investment and a negotiated solution, instead of boycotts and divestments.” 

Oberlin College Student Senate endorses divestment resolution


The Oberlin College Student Senate endorsed a resolution that calls for the college to divest from six companies that do business in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem and Gaza.

Following a three-hour discussion, the resolution was approved “by majority” on Monday, the Oberlin College Students for a Free Palestine said in a news release.

The six companies are Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, Group 4 Securicor, SodaStream, Elbit Systems and Veolia.

Similar resolutions have been passed this school year at the University of California campuses in Irvine, Berkeley and San Diego.

The Students for a Free Palestine group at Oberlin said it would bring the resolution to the Oberlin College Board of Trustees’ Finance Committee, which sets the college's financial policies.

“My concern about BDS is that it furthers the polarization between students who might consider themselves pro-Israel and students who might consider themselves pro-Palestinian,” Oberlin sophomore Noa Fleischacker, co-chair of J Street U’s Oberlin chapter, told the Oberlin Review student newspaper before the vote.

“What we really need to be doing is creating conversation and dialogue between those students, and also on the ground of creating negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.”

Cal-Berkeley student senate passes divestment measure


A student senate at the University of California, Berkeley narrowly passed a measure calling on the school to divest from three companies with dealings in the West Bank.

Following 10 hours of sometimes heated debate, the Associated Students of the University of California senate early Wednesday morning passed the resolution in an 11-9 vote, the student newspaper, the Daily Californian, reported.

The resolution calls on the school to divest more than $14 million in university and Associated Students funds from Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Cement Roadstone Holding, saying they profit from Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Jewish settlements there.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, a proponent of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, came to support the resolution. Many faculty and community members attended the debate.

“Tonight is not about corporations,” Sadia Saifuddin, one of the resolution's co-sponsors, told the Daily Californian, according to the j. weekly. “It's about asking ourselves before we go to sleep whether our money is going toward the destruction of homes, toward the erection of a wall” — a reference to the security fence.

Saifuddin added, “I don't want one cent of my money to go toward fueling the occupation of my brothers and sisters.”

Jason Bell, an opponent of the divestment measure, told the student paper, according to the j., that the resolution language “frames Israel as the sole aggressor.”

“This is more than just divesting from three companies,” he said. “Divestment is undoubtedly taking a side in the conflict.”

Similar resolutions have been passed at the University of California campuses in Irvine and San Diego.

The University of California, Riverside's student government passed a BDS resolution last month that was overturned on April 3 — opponents argued that they were not given enough time to prepare for the vote. BDS measures also were rejected in the last two months at UC-Santa Barbara and Stanford University, the j. reported.

UC Irvine student divestment vote rejected by school officials


A resolution passed by the UC Irvine undergraduate student council calling on the university to divest from companies that “profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine” has been rejected by the UCI administration.

At the same time, leaders of the Orange County Jewish community denounced “the nonbinding resolution, drafted and introduced with no forewarning by a small group of students with a personal agenda and deliberated in the absence of students with opposing views.”

The Nov. 13 student council resolution, titled “Divestment from Companies that Profit from Apartheid” and passed unanimously 16 to 0, asked the UCI administration, and the UC system as a whole, to divest specifically from Caterpillar, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Raytheon and other companies.

[Related: UC-Irvine student senate approves non-binding divestment resolution on Israel]

In a news release, the student council described the resolution, introduced by council members Sabreen Shalabi and Shadi Jafari, as “a historic move that could initiate a domino effect across American campuses.”

In response, the UCI administration released a statement on Nov. 14 on the resolution stating that “such divestment is not the policy of this campus, nor is it the policy of the University of California. The UC Board of Regents‘ policy requires this action only when the U.S. government deems it necessary. No such declaration has been made regarding Israel.”

Shalom C. Elcott, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation & Family Service of Orange County, lauded the strong ties between UCI and Israeli universities and promised that this work “will not be undermined by divisive efforts…that are contrary to the interests of students.”

In past years, the UCI campus has been the scene of numerous incidents between Muslim and Jewish students, with some Jewish groups criticizing the administration for its failure to take remedial action.

However, earlier this year, UCI Chancellor Michael Drake led a faculty delegation to Israel, which signed cooperation agreements with Ben-Gurion University, Hebrew University, Technion and Tel Aviv University.

Israel cited in Caterpillar’s delisting from influential investment index


The sale of Caterpillar tractors to Israel was a factor, but not the determining one, in the delisting of the company from an influential index that prioritizes good governance and human rights.The move, however, is poised to further complicate the difficult ongoing conversation about Israel taking place between American Jewish gruops and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

A senior official at MSCI-ESG, a subdivision of MSCI, Morgan Stanley’s investment advice arm, said Caterpillar already had a low rating before its delisting earlier this year, in part because of its association with the Israeli army’s use of the tractors in the West Bank and past use in the Gaza Strip. The role of Israel’s use of the tractors in the decision also suggests that a sustained campaign by pro-Palestinian groups has had some effect, although officials at MSGI-ESG and one of its clients, the TIAA-CREF pension fund, deny succumbing to direct pressure.

TIAA-CREF’s divestiture amounted to $72 million in funds, dwarfing previous divestitures by liberal religious groups such as Friends Fiduciary, a Quaker group that divested $900,000.

The news of the delisting comes ahead of the biennial general assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), where divestment from Caterpillar and other companies selling products used by the Israeli army, will be considered.

Ethan Felson, the assistant executive director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Jewish community’s lead official in countering the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement aimed at Israel—known as BDS, said that news of the MSCI-ESG decision would cause “damage” just ahead of the Presbyterian colloquy.

He said that linking Caterpillar to Israeli practices was “nonsensical,” noting that it had no say in how the U.S. military resells the tractors, and that it could not legally turn down the U.S. military as a client.

The MSGI-ESG official told JTA on Friday that what drove Caterpillar off the index was the company’s decision in February to shutter a London, Ont. plant after a high-profile dispute with employees. However, the official acknowledged several factors played into it, including the association of CAT with Israeli army practices in the occupied territories.

The death in 2003 of Rachel Corrie, an American pro-Palestinian activist, while she was protesting such a demolition in Gaza, helped spur the BDS movement forward. Corrie’s parents and witnesses say she was caught beneath an armored tractor.  The army denies fault and maintains she was killed by debris.

MSCI-ESG – ESG stands for Environment, Social or Governance – has as its clients a number of progressive groups that base their investments in part on social justice issues, including care for the environment, the treatment and safety of employees, and involvement in human rights abuses.

MSCI-ESG’s decision, made in February and effective as of March 1, came to light this week because of claims by groups associated with the BDS movement that a decision by TIAA-CREF – a pension fund for teachers and other academics – to divest from Caterpillar was a result of their pressure.

“It’s long past time that TIAA-CREF began living up to its motto of ‘Financial Services for the Greater Good’ when it comes to the people of Israel and Palestine,” Rabbi Alissa Wise, the national coordinator for “We Divest,” a coalition of several groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace, where Wise is director of campaigns.

Caterpillar, in a statement released to Jewish groups, once again denied direct sales to Israel of the D-9 Track-Type tractors.

“This is how it works,” corporate spokesman Jim Dugan said. “Caterpillar sells equipment to the U.S. government, which then transfers the equipment to the Israeli government, which then transfers it to the Israeli military.  Israeli is one of about 150 countries that take part in the program, which supports U.S. allies. For the D9s, the protective armor plating, the bullet resistant glass and other modifications take place after the machine has been transferred to the Israeli government by the U.S. government.  These changes happen after the sale, not in our factories. We hope and wish for a peaceful resolution to the unrest in the Middle East, but that solution is a political matter to be worked out by the appropriate parties.  Caterpillar does not and should not have a role in that political process.”

The Jewish Federations of America’s Israel Action Network derided the haste with which pro-BDS groups claimed credit for the divestment.

“Pro-BDS groups have constructed the ‘Caterpillar Myth’ that insinuates a conflict between the machine and the Palestinian people,” Geri Palast, IAN’s managing director said in a statement. “It is designed to invoke dystopian images, link BDS to specific Israeli policies and appeal to fear.”

Officials of TIAA-CREF, however, denied such pressure was a factor and pointed JTA to established policy that devolves such decisions to its “social screen vendor,” in this case, MSCI-ESG.

And while the MSCI-ESG official, who spoke on background, affirmed that Israel’s use of the tractors was one of several factors in the decision, he also said that an established methodology determines which company is listed and which is not, and that decisions are not based on representations from interest groups. The official’s emphasis suggested that shuttering the Canadian factory had greater weight than Israel’s use of the tractors.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, the Jewish Voice for Peace spokswoman said she was “confident” that representations by the We Divest coalition and other groups both to MSCI-ESG and to TIAA-CREF played a role.

In any case, she said, activism by groups such as hers has resulted in a “consensus in the human rights community because of its role in human rights abuses in Palestine, Caterpillar is not an ethical actor.”

Pro-Palestinian groups have for a decade campaigned against the sale of the tractors to Israel. Caterpillar sells the tractors to the U.S. military for resale to allies. Caterpillar says it does not determine to which countries the tractors are resold and how they are refitted for military use.

The pro-Palestinian groups, backed by a number of human rights NGOs, say that Israel uses the tractors to destroy Palestinian homes as a means of inhibiting growth and as collective punishment. Israel says the tractors are used to destroy illegal structures, and in Gaza were used until 2005, when Israel pulled out, to destroy tunnels used by terrorists for smuggling purposes.

Methodists reject divestment motion


The general conference of the United Methodist Church voted not to divest from three companies that trade with Israel.

Two-thirds of the approximately 1,000 delegates to the conference voted Wednesday in Tampa, Fla., against a motion to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard.

Divestment advocates claim that products manufactured by these companies are used to repress Palestinians.

The conference passed motions opposing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, recommending the boycott of products manufactured in settlements and eastern Jerusalem, and investment in the Palestinian economy.

Language that would have affirmed the Kairos Document prepared by Palestinian Christians endorsing divestment and boycotts, and upholding armed resistance was removed from the list of resolutions before reaching the floor.