A petition before the 2012 United Methodist General Conference would require the denomination to back its opposition to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories by dropping investments in selected companies whose products are used in the occupation.
What the legislation does not do, according to its supporters, is call for a boycott against those companies or for divestment from Israel itself.
"We have never mentioned a boycott," said Susanne Hoder of United Methodist Kairos Response, an advocacy group. "We are dealing only with how our church invests its own money and whether we want to profit from sales of equipment used to sustain the occupation."
The proposed resolution, "Aligning United Methodist Investments with Resolutions on Israel/Palestine," was submitted by the Board of Church and Society and endorsed by the Board of Global Ministries. Eight annual (regional) conferences also voted in their conference sessions in favor of selective divestment, Hoder said.
The legislation - to be considered when the denomination's top legislative body meets April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla. - calls for all boards and agencies "to divest promptly" from three companies - Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard - and dialogue with other companies identified as being economically linked to the occupation.
Opponents of the petition include directors of the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits, who approved a resolution on March 2 unanimously affirming "the decision of its fiduciary and UMC principles committees to retain the securities of Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions&ellipsis;."
Pension staff, the directors noted, would "continue to urge these companies to protect and respect human rights, and to continue to seek a remedy for any human rights violations including, but not limited to, Palestine."
Other denominations have considered actions related to the Occupied Territories. In July, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) assembly will vote on a recommendation to divest its holdings from Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions.
Presiding Episcopal Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori recently urged her fellow Episcopalians to invest in Palestinian development rather than focus on divestment or boycotts.
The United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits points to several examples of previous situations where dialogue or shareholder action produced positive results:
In 1996, allegations of worker abuses in Nike factories led the Board of Pension to file the first shareholder resolution calling upon the company to report on its efforts to ensure that supplier factories treat employees with dignity, fairness and humaneness. The pension agency worked closely with Nike to develop a code of conduct for its factories that would be monitored closely.
In 2006, the pension agency addressed concerns about how companies were monitoring their supplier's policies and practices relating to child labor on cocoa plantations in West Africa. (Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire). Many became members of the World Cocoa Foundation, which created a process that certifies that children have not harvested cocoa.
In 2007, efforts by United Methodists and Presbyterians helped foster formal contract negotiations between McDonald's and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, resulting in a wage increase for migrant workers.
In 2008, the pension board sent letters to more than 85 companies, including Walmart, asking if products that they were retailing were made from cotton grown in Uzbekistan, a country well known for its dependence on child labor. Walmart then made a public statement directing its suppliers not to source cotton from Uzbekistan for products to sell in Walmart stores.
Plea from Palestinian Christians
This is not the first time the issue has come before General Conference. In 2008, petitions asking for selective divestment from companies "that profit from sales of products or services that cause harm to Palestinians and Israelis" were combined into an omnibus piece of legislation later rejected by delegates.
In December 2009, Palestinian Christians issued the Kairos Palestine document, which included an urgent plea for action from the global Christian community. United Methodist Kairos Response was formed with the intent of connecting more closely the denomination's official position on the Palestinian question with specific actions, its supporters say.
The United Methodist Church "opposes continued military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem," along with the confiscation of Palestinian land and the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, according to the 2008 Book of Resolutions.
Continuing to invest in companies identified as profiting from the occupation - Caterpillar's bulldozers being used to build the separation wall has been cited as one example - does not make sense, said the Rev. John Wagner of Kairos Response. He is pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Huber Heights, Ohio.
"We've been dialoguing with these companies for many years, both with our ecumenical partners and with United Methodist agencies," he explained. "The last conversations with a number of these companies have really indicated there is nowhere else to go."
Refusing to continue to invest in these companies does not translate into a general opposition to Israel, Wagner declared. "I see Israel as caught in a difficult conflict," he said. "They have sectors of the society that have pushed hard for a total annexation of the West Bank, which is the area set aside for a future Palestinian state."
The United Methodist Book of Discipline allows the option of "corporate divestment" as a tool of socially responsible investment. The church law book also directs United Methodist entities to "endeavor to avoid investments that appear likely, directly or indirectly, to support racial discrimination, violation of human rights, sweatshop or forced labor, gambling or the production of nuclear armaments, alcoholic beverages or tobacco, or companies dealing in pornography."
"Palestinian Christians have called out for our help," Hoder said, noting the Board of Pension and Health Benefits divested from Oil and Gas Company of India in 2008 because of its involvement in the Sudan conflict. "We feel it's equally important to employ this technique when we are hoping to end the oppression of Palestinians."
Focus on dialogue
Generally, the pension agency said in a statement, it prefers engagement to divestment unless a company's products or services "are themselves contrary" to United Methodist beliefs, as in the case of alcohol, tobacco, pornography, gambling, weapons or private prisons.
In their March 2 resolution, pension agency directors said conversations with Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions were continuing and cited some "positive actions" undertaken by those corporations on human rights matters.
"With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the general board is very concerned about human rights issues," said Barbara Boigegrain, top executive. "Through our corporate engagement program, we ask companies to review the human rights sections of their codes of conduct, strengthen them where warranted and apply them to their operations in the region.
"Furthermore, we encourage the companies to provide humanitarian aid for Palestinian people when possible," she said. "We believe these strategies provide the framework for improvement over time."
General Conference also is receiving a report from the "Socially Responsible Investment Task Force" established in 2008 and led by the United Methodist Church Foundation.
The task force has not taken a position on the Israel/Palestine investment petition, said Byrd Bonner, the foundation's executive director and a task force member. An October 2010 summit on socially responsible investing at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., included "disparate voices" on how best to achieve results, he added.
Having a denominationwide forum for discussion like the summit - away from the "heat" of a legislative session - is important, Bonner believes. "People are talking about divestment, but they're only talking about it once every four years," he said.
A larger denominational pool of funds for socially responsible investing could have more clout, Bonner said, and he hopes the concept will become an organic part of any new structure developed by the denomination. The key, he said, is better communication, and the task force is recommending the development of some cost-effective tools to achieve that goal.
A few of the denomination's annual conferences already have sold stock of their own because of the Palestinian issue. Last year, the West Ohio Conference, which supports the general church divestment, also agreed to pull its investments "from companies we saw as supporting the occupation" said Wagner, a clergy member of the conference. Those investments were in Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and General Electric.
The West Ohio task force making the recommendation, he said, included liberal and conservative church members, both politically and theologically, who are in opposition on other social issues but concluded that divestment was a necessary step. "To me, that's very powerful at a time when the church has seen so much division," Wagner added.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or [email protected].