Presbyterian, Methodist Church Denominations Divided Over Israeli Divestment

A conference of the United Methodist Church in May 2012, where members voted on divestment from certain companies. (Edward Linsmier for The New York Times)
A conference of the United Methodist Church in May 2012, where members voted on divestment from certain companies. (Edward Linsmier for The New York Times)

A decision by the pension board of the United Methodist Church to sell its stock in a company that provides security equipment to Israel has set off a backlash from supporters of Israel, who are gearing up for another fight over divestment this week at the convention of another mainline Protestant denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Members of both churches have been debating divestment for years at their conventions, the result of a larger campaign by activists who see divestment as a strategy to pressure Israel to stop building settlements and to take steps toward a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians. Opponents of divestment say it unfairly demonizes only one side in the conflict.

Advocates for divestment claimed a breakthrough victory last week when the Methodist pension board decided to sell about $110,000 of stock in G4S, a security company with contracts in Israel and many other countries. A news release issued by a church group that supports divestment, the United Methodist Kairos Response, said the pension board had sold the shares “due in part to concerns about the company’s involvement in human rights violations in the Israeli prison system and the military occupation of Palestinian territories.”

David H. Zellner, chief investment officer of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church, tried during a lengthy interview on Friday to mollify those on both sides of the issue. He said that the stock was purchased only last December, probably in error, because the Methodist Church is not supposed to invest in companies that profit from prisons.

Those opposed to divestment have latched onto his explanation, generating news articles stating that the stock was sold because of the company’s involvement in prisons, in general, and not because of Israel.

However, Mr. Zeller said in the interview that the news release from Kairos Response was correct: that the stock was sold in response to concerns brought by pro-divestment groups that G4S was supplying equipment used in Israeli prisons and in the occupied West Bank. The criteria the pension board used was prisons, but the impetus was the company’s contracts to supply prisons in Israel, Mr. Zellner said.

“We received several comments regarding companies that could be involved in human rights abuses. It was pointed out to us in these comments that G4S was a prison operator, and that there may be human rights abuses associated with some of the prisons that they service,” Mr. Zellner said.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Laurie Goodstein

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