To divest or to “positively engage”?

The Church of England, meeting in its General Synod, voted this week “to disinvest church funds from companies profiting from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory,” as Stephen Bates put it in The Guardian.

“The main target of the plan will be the US earth-moving equipment company Caterpillar which has supplied vehicles used by Israel to demolish Palestinian homes,” Bates wrote.

The New York Times story is here.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, backed the move, while his predecessor, George Carey, strongly opposed it. Simon Sarmiento of Thinking Anglicans has a round-up of reaction. (Scroll down past the word Update.)

The vote will reignite the heated debate about what response Christians should make to the violent stalemate in the Middle East.

Several mainline Protestant denominations have flirted with a resolution similar to the one passed this week by the Church of England. Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning has an excellent resource page that provides a solid recounting.

The Episcopal Church has been deeply involved in the efforts to develop a “socially responsible investment policy” in the Middle East, but our efforts have frequently been misportrayed or misunderstood. The Church’s current policy, approved at a meeting of our Executive Council in October 2005, is to encourage companies in which the Church has investments to adopt practices that advance changes in Israeli government policy that would end the occupation of the West Bank, as well as urging the Palestinian Authority to oppose violence as a means of resistance.

Episcopal News Service provided one story when the Social Responsibility in Investment Committee offered its report–available here as a pdf.– and another when the report was accepted.

For a detailed look at the tangled history of the divestment debate within the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church, click below.

At our General Convention in August, 2003, the Episcopal Church passed one resolution recognizing “that Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip and the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is illegal under international law and is a deterrent to the peace process,” and another recognizing “that the 360 kilometer long Israeli security wall currently under construction and the proposed additional 240 kilometer extension are impediments to the implementation of the performance-based roadmap leading to a final and comprehensive negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The complete collection of General Convention resolutions regarding the Middle East can be found here.

The Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a member, was meanwhile, working through its Peace and Justice Network toward a set of its own recommendations on how to respond to the crisis in the Middle East. In September, 2004, it released this statement which said, in part:

“We conclude from our experience that there is little will on behalf of the Israeli government to recognize the rights of the Palestinians to a sovereign state to be created in the West Bank – which includes East Jerusalem – and Gaza. Israel, with the complicity of the United States, seems determined to flaunt international laws, whether they are the Geneva Conventions, United Nations resolutions or the most recent decision of the International Court of Justice in declaring the separation wall illegal. In fact, we note that this latter decision is based on building the wall on Palestinian territory, which once again demonstrates the illegality of the Occupation itself. ”

The group, which included Canon Brian Grieves, director of Peace and Justice Ministries for the Episcopal Church was immediately criticized by Jewish groups. Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League released a letter that began:

It was with great shock and sadness that we read the report of the Anglican Peace and Justice Network “Give Sight to the Blind and Freedom to the Captives.” We are concerned about the utter lack of balance in this report. There is no evidence of any understanding on the part of the writers of the role the Palestinians have played in their own sad situation.”

Speculation began to spread that the report was laying the ground work for a divestment campaign within the Churches of the Anglican Communion. I wish I could say more about how this happened, and how much of it was justified, but I don’t know. Some Churches in the Communion were more eager to consider divestment than others.

Grieves, and Bishop C. Christopher Epting, the Church’s deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, released a statement that said in part:

“The Anglican Peace and Justice Network, representing the full 77 million member Anglican Communion, issued a statement September 22 in Jerusalem following an eight day visit to Palestine and Israel. While that statement did not refer to the issue of divestment, the Network will make a report in June 2005 to the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) that may include a recommendation about social responsibility in investments. The ACC would consider that report and in turn recommend policy to the individual Anglican provinces. It would then be up to those provinces, including the Episcopal Church, USA, and their governing bodies to reach their own policy decisions. In the case of the Episcopal Church, that would mean the Executive Council and/or General Convention.”

Two months later, the SRI Committee announced that over the next twelve months, it would investigate what corporate actions including corporate dialogues and shareholder resolutions) might be appropriate with (1) companies that contribute to the infrastructure of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and (2) companies that have connections to organizations responsible for violence against Israel.

“In doing this work,” the committee said, it would “work in partnership with the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East and with the Anglican Peace and Justice Network, the latter of which is preparing a report for the Anglican Consultative Council in June 2005.”

There matters sat until June 2005, when the Anglican Consultative Council, unanimously passed legislation that

a) welcomed the controversial September 2004 report by the Anglican Peace and Justice Network on the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict.

b) commended the resolve of the Episcopal Church (USA) to take appropriate action where it finds that its corporate investments support the occupation of Palestinian lands or violence against innocent Israelis, and

i) commended such a process to other Provinces having such investments, to be considered in line with their adopted ethical investment strategies

ii) encouraged investment strategies that support the infrastructure of a future Palestinian State

Once again there was strong negative reaction from Jewish leaders which you can sample by scrolling down to June 2005, on this page provided by Boston College

The passage of this resolution once again fueled speculation about divestment. It was seized upon by conservatives in the United States as evidence that the mainline Protestant churches were anti-Israel at a minimum, if not anti-Semitic.

The fact that the resolution did not call for divestment, and that the Episcopal Church had not advocated divestment was lost amidst charges and counter charges. When the Social Responsibility in Investment Committee completed its report and submitted it to executive council, it advocated an entirely different course. (See the early section of this entry.)

The Church of England has now decided on a more aggressive course. People of good faith can disagree on which Church has taken the better path, but I thought it was worthwhile to sort through this thicket of documentation and speculation to demonstrate both what the Church has chosen, and why its choice has sometimes been misunderstood.

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