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The Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA) began debating Friday the issue of divesting from companies doing business with Israel because of Israel's policy in the Palestinian territories.
The church, which represents 2.3 million followers in the US, is expected to vote this week on reconsidering its 2004 resolution which approved the divestment measures.
The resolution called for pulling out funds of Presbyterian Churches and pension funds from companies that have made profit from contracts signed for the construction of the Israeli separation barrier or for projects that involved Jewish settlements or military activity in the West Bank. The church has already started discussing the issue with five multi-national companies that deal with Israel, among them Caterpillar which provides bulldozers used by the Israeli military.
In the preliminary discussion held Thursday, a pro-divestment activist Salam Al-Maryati, of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee said that the "Israelis are encircling the Palestinians like the Warsaw ghetto". This remark was opposed by Jewish activists who attended the discussion.
Major Jewish organizations have sent representatives to the General Assembly of the PCUSA in Birmingham, Alabama, in order to lobby against the divestment resolution. Among the groups that are represented at the conference are the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the Reform Judaism movement and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. A pro-divestment Jewish group Jewish Voice for Peace also sent representatives to the event.
Ethan Felson, the associate director of the JCPA said in the Friday hearing of the "committee on peacemaking and international issues" which is dealing with the divestment issue, that even if the claims made against Israel were true, it would not be wise to divest from Israel. "Israel is not going to make decisions on land and peace based on economic pressure," Felson said.
A pastor from a Presbyterian church in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas Hucke, also voiced his opposition to the divestment resolution and said that "divestment will permanently damage our relationship with the Jewish community."
The committee also heard from members and guests who supported divesting from Israel, among them Professor Norman Finkelstein, who said that Israel "has a horrendous record on human rights". In a preliminary discussion, the delegates were presented with a report on human rights in the Palestinian territories prepared by a PCUSA team. The report concluded that Israel uses collective punishment in the territories and that not enough is done by Israel to investigate killing of Palestinians.
The committee also heard Friday from a young participant on a tour conducted by the Presbyterian Church to Israel and Palestine and who supported the divestment resolution. "Who will speak from behind the wall" asked the teenager, Chad Elletson, referring to the separation fence being built by Israel.
The committee was expected to vote on the divestment resolution late Saturday or early Sunday. The issue will be taken on by the General Assembly of the PCUSA either Tuesday or Wednesday.
Pro-Israel Jewish activists, joined by supporters of Israel within the Presbyterian Church are trying to get the divestment resolution rescinded altogether, while the pro-divestment activists are trying to get the 2004 resolution reaffirmed. At the same time there is also a possibility of a compromise measure which would call for the establishment of a working group to examine the issue for two years. In that case, it would be up to the 200 delegates to decide whether the church divests from Israel during the examination period or if it suspends divestment activity until the group comes up with its findings.