Divest no evil

Methodists being asked to single out Israel as sufficiently wicked to join Sudan as target of sanctions.

divestment 88 (photo credit: )
divestment 88
(photo credit: )
While Barak Obama and John McCain have had to answer for the statements of their church leaders, neither Hillary Clinton nor George Bush have had to do the same, despite the fact that their church - the Methodists - are gathering in Fort Worth to take action that has real, rather than merely rhetorical, significance. During this week's General Conference, the United Methodist Church will be reviewing a number of resolutions urging divestment from companies doing business with Israel and the Sudan. As with most divestment drives over the last few years, this one begs the question of why Israel - a tiny country acting against a backdrop of perpetual terror targeted at it - is lumped together with the Sudanese regime responsible for close to two million deaths in its south and 200,000-400,000 (and growing) in its state of Darfur. A vote on whether or not the church should take action against a familiar target of Israel divestment campaigns - Caterpillar Tractor, in which the church holds a share worth more than $5 million is no longer scheduled, but church delegates convening in Texas have been asked to give "careful consideration" to a number of other divestment proposals. One is from the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, which has drawn up a list of a dozen divestment targets, the result of its own painstaking research into corporations tainted by questionable investments in the Middle East. Yet how careful was it really? A quick review of over 1,000 stocks owned by the church's Domestic Stock Fund (DSF) and International Stock Fund (ISF) shows that, at least as of 2007, the church was managing over $10 billion in holdings. While the New England Conference fingered familiar Israel divestment targets such as Caterpillar and ITT Corporation (church holdings of $369,824), and added new ones like Blockbuster Video ($208,000), it blithely overlooked the rest of the church's investment portfolio, which reads like a Who's Who of companies identified as heavily involved with some of the most brutal, repressive states in the world. TAKE FOR instance five companies that have been identified by organizations such as The Center for Security Policy and The Sudan Divestment Taskforce as major investors in states responsible for terrorism, repression and severe human rights abuses, but which seem to have passed the New England Conference's morality test. The leading French bank BNP (in which the church holds over $4 million in equity) has financed over $2 billion in projects in Iran and was probed by British intelligence in 2004 for the alleged misuse of funds in the UN Oil-for-Food program. European oil giants ENI and Total (combined church holdings of over $38 million) have substantial development projects in Iran and Libya (with French Total having also been involved with projects with Syria, Sudan and Saddam Hussein's Iraq). Iran and Syria also are customers of Siemens (church holdings close to $9 million), also contributing to the construction of the world's largest diesel power station in Khartoum, home to a regime responsible for over two million deaths in south Sudan and Darfur. Sudan is also an important investment for India's Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (church holdings: over $2 million), which has spent the last several years buying up the assets of Western energy companies who have divested from that country owing to the situation in Darfur. THE JEWISH Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) has done extensive research on the hundreds of distortions, historic omissions and examples of gross bias in educational materials being distributed within the church regarding divestment and the Middle East in general. Combined with the moral blindness represented by a divestment program that finds a $200,000 investment in Blockbuster morally repugnant because it allows Jews (and Arabs) in Jerusalem suburbs to rent Ratatouille, but has nothing to say about tens of millions invested in lands where blacks, women and homosexuals face repression, murder and even genocide, and you end up with a church (or, more precisely, a church leadership) suffering from an enormous log in its own eye. Pointing out that church leaders are generally the ones driving these campaigns (as demonstrated by the Presbyterians whose members voted down divestment 483 to 28 in their 2006 conference), highlights that wisdom on this issue has most often come from those in the pews. As regards both Sudan and Israel, church activists have been following moral followership, rather than leadership. A variety of human rights activists have put Darfur on the agenda, partly because of the human rights disaster taking place there, partly because of the role of China in propping up the Sudanese economy. (Interestingly, church divestment activists have had almost nothing to say about China to date.) So, in this instance, the church has joined a movement already well in progress. Fair enough. On the other hand, Israel (not China, not Iran, not Zimbabwe, etc.) made their list for the same reason divestment projects have popped up in numerous churches, universities, municipalities, unions and other civic organizations in the last few years, only to be voted down by awesome majorities (as in the Presbyterian example). In all of these instances, a small group of single-issue partisans push a respected organization (in this case, one of the world's great religious institutions) onboard, in an effort to allow anti-Israel divestment to punch above its own considerably limited weight. Besides a tendency to go over the heads or behind the backs of an organization's members to achieve their goals, such activists also have in common a complete disregard of the damage such anti-Israel divestment programs do to fellowship within a church, interfaith dialogue and the very reputation of any civic organization they touch. Israel's reputation will clearly survive any vote taken by the Methodists when they convene in Texas in April. That's not necessarily true of the good name of the Methodist Church itself. The writer is Boston-based and has written internationally on divestment.