Through petitions and advocacy, some United Methodists are again asking delegates to the denomination’s top legislative body to use divestment as a way to address the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Legislative proposals for General Conference, which meets May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon, name three companies — Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard — as divestment targets and call for an end to investments that relate to illegal settlements, including those on Palestinian land. Similar legislation failed during the 2008 and 2012 General Conference sessions.
The divestment petitions for 2016 were submitted by various annual conferences, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and United Methodist Kairos Response, an advocacy group. A few other petitions oppose the use of divestment for church funds.
The Rev. Michael Yoshi, who co-chairs Kairos Response with Susanne Hoder, believes the situation in Palestine “has gotten increasingly worse” since the last General Conference, as the confiscation, annexation and demolition of Palestinian land and property has escalated.
“We’ve seen more and more United Methodists join us in this movement as we respond to the call of the Palestinians, whom we’ve developed close relationships with,” said Yoshi, who calls the movement a faithful response to “a moral and justice issue.”
The United Methodist Church officially opposes Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, as well as the continued building of illegal Jewish settlements.
The church’s position “does not support a boycott of products made in Israel” but does call upon on “all nations” to prohibit the import of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and asks that companies profiting from the settlements “stop any business” that supports the ongoing military occupation.
Pension agency opposes divestment
The calls for divestment mainly focus on the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits and Wespath, its investment arm. The agency’s website has a resource, “Addressing Human Rights – Israel and the Palestinian Territories,” that addresses the divestment question.
That resource points to the board’s conviction that “ongoing dialogue with diverse stakeholders from both the Palestinian and Israeli communities” is the key to engagement.
The pension agency has consistently opposed legislative attempts at General Conference to require divestment from specific companies. “We don’t believe that divestment is an effective strategy for increasing positive change,” said Barbara Boigegrain, top executive. “Walking away from the table silences your voice.”
Using investment screens can impose the same limitations, she added, because dialogue can no longer be initiated. The pension agency has been in ongoing conversation “with all of the companies” mentioned in General Conference petitions on divestment, she said.
Dave Zellner, chief investment officer, said the pension agency has been “very active in advising Caterpillar on its human rights policy. They have come to us with ideas, we have given them feedback on what they’ve provided and they have taken it carefully into consideration. We feel pretty confident that we have been making progress with them.”
In a recent press release, the Board of Pension and Health Benefits pointed to Caterpillar in relation to Wespath’s engagement with companies through the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
“Caterpillar recently announced that, in alignment with the Guiding Principles, it has expanded its human rights policy; provided more detailed reporting on the policy implementation to its board; and conducted a human rights impact assessment across its entire value chain, including its suppliers and dealers,” the release stated.
Frustrated by negotiations
Jim Nibbelink, a General Conference delegate and lay leader of the Desert Southwest Conference, believes the church should not have investments in companies involved in situations where there are clear violations of international law and overt human rights abuses.
A member of the Kairos Response steering committee, Nibbelink said he sees the value in shareholder advocacy, but pointed out that 12 years of the denomination’s negotiations with Caterpillar have yielded no fruit. “They (Caterpillar) have, as far as we can tell, made some minor revisions in their policies on human rights,” Nibbelink added. “However, their behavior has not changed a bit.”
For Hoder, the idea that positive investment in Palestinian is a solution to real change for Palestinians — an idea promoted at the 2012 General Conference — is not feasible ahead of necessary political changes. “It’s our opinion that first the occupation needs to end and then the investment can come,” she explained.
The leadership at Kairos Response believes that most church members are not really informed about what is happening in the Palestinian territories. Those who go and visit the Palestinian people “come away with a stark sense of the injustice of what’s taking place,” Yoshi said.
Kairos Response leaders said they would bring Palestinian and Jewish representatives to General Conference and hope United Methodists will take the time “to listen to their stories, to their truths and to their hopes about the future.”
Seeking divestment alternatives
The Rev. Alexander Joyner is part of a group called “United Methodists for Constructive Peacemaking in Israel and Palestine” that also took part in the conversation at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida.
“I do think the landscape is pretty much the same,” he said. “There’s a similar focus on particular companies on the divestment side.”
In Joyner’s opinion, using divestment as a tool to end the occupation does not foster reconciliation or allow for restorative justice. “In effect, it singles out Israel as the part that needs to change, but Israel is not capable of unilaterally solving the situation,” he said.
But he also sees the need to move beyond an emphasis of positive investment in the Palestinian economy, which the group promoted in 2012. That is still a valuable pursuit, Joyner said, but the group’s new focus is on “non-exclusionary screens” to proactively seek companies “that are contributing to the development of cooperative ventures between Israelis and Palestinians.”
A petition that Joyner submitted on behalf of United Methodists for Constructive Peacemaking in Israel and Palestine asks General Conference to call upon the Board of Church and Society, in cooperation with JustPeace, to affirm strategies to engage both Israelis and Palestinians, and support U.S and international efforts at diplomacy with restorative justice. Restorative justice “works to recognize damages, rebuild trust, honor dignity and integrate all people who have been harmed through conflict.”
Another proposed resolution “would encourage United Methodists to ask the U.S. government to give more a concrete framework of a two-state solution,” Joyner said. “That alone can’t be the answer but it’s got to be part of the answer to have some sort of negotiated settlement.”