NEW YORK - The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) appears to be on the brink of handing a major victory to a movement that wants institutions to wield their investment dollars against Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.
The Presbyterian General Assembly, gathering in Detroit through next week, will consider withdrawing its investments from some companies whose products are used by the Israeli government in the Palestinian territories. Divestment advocates were narrowly outmaneuvered at the last Presbyterian convention in 2012, losing a crucial ballot by just two votes. They enter this year's fight with signs of increasing momentum, within and outside the church.
"I remember in 2006, the use of the word 'occupation' in General Assembly circles - it was like using a bad word. You just didn't say it and when you said it sounded outrageous," said the Rev. Jeffrey DeYoe of the Presbyterian's Israel Palestine Mission Network, which advocates for Palestinians. "We've come a long way from there."
Presbyterian national assemblies have for a decade considered adopting some type of sanctions over Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. In 2004, delegates voted overwhelmingly to start "phased, selective divestment" of corporations operating in Israel, then in later meetings took a step back, apologizing for the hurt they caused Jews. Still, delegates continued criticizing Israeli policy in official resolutions, and at the 2012 convention, came within two votes of directing the church to divest. The 2012 delegates did win enough votes to call for a boycott of Israeli products manufactured in the Palestinian territories.
The broader movement known as BDS - which stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel - has scored some successes in Europe and elsewhere, but has had far less influence in the United States, Israel's closest and most important ally. However, the boycott campaign is gaining some ground in America, with small but symbolic victories meant to pressure Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and end the occupation.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is among the many liberal-leaning Protestant denominations that were once at the center of American religious life but have been losing members for decades. As of last year, the denomination had just under 1.8 million members.