DETROIT — The Presbyterian Church (USA) on Friday became the most prominent religious group in the United States to endorse divestment as a protest against Israeli policies toward Palestinians, voting to sell church stock in three companies whose products Israel uses in the occupied territories.
The General Assembly voted by a razor-thin margin — 310 to 303 — to sell stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. Two years ago, the General Assembly rejected a similar divestment proposal by two votes.
A church spokeswoman estimated the value of the Presbyterian holdings in the companies at $21 million.
The American Jewish Committee, a policy and advocacy group based in New York, said the vote was “driven by hatred of Israel.” But Heath Rada, moderator for the church meeting, said immediately after the vote that “in no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
The decision is expected to reverberate well beyond the church. It comes amid discouragement over failed peace talks that have left activists desperate for some way to affect change and as the broader movement known as BDS — or boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel — has gained some momentum in the United States, Israel’s closest and most important ally.
Presbyterians who advocated for divestment insisted their action was not part of the broader boycott movement. Israeli officials, along with many American Jewish groups and their supporters, have denounced the campaign as an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state. In a separate vote, the assembly also voted to re-examine its historic support for a two-state solution.
The top Presbyterian legislative body has been considering divestment for a decade. Representatives of the Presbyterian socially responsible investment arm told the national meeting in Detroit that their efforts to lobby the three companies for change had failed. Carol Hylkema of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a Presbyterian group that advocates for Palestinians and spearheaded the drive for divestment, said their action was modeled on the divestment movement to end apartheid in South Africa.
Two smaller U.S. religious groups have divested in protest of Israeli policies: the Friends Fiduciary Corp., which manages assets for U.S. Quakers, and the Mennonite Central Committee. Last week, the pension board of the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant group in the United States, revealed plans to sell holdings worth about $110,000 in G4S, which provides security equipment and has contracts with Israel’s prison system. But the United Methodist Church had rejected churchwide divestment.
On Thursday, the Presbyterian General Assembly also voted by large margins to recognize same-sex marriage as Christian in the church constitution, adding language that marriage can be the union of “two people,” not just “a man and a woman.”
The amendment requires approval from a majority of the 172 regional presbyteries, which will vote on the change over the next year. But in a separate policy change that takes effect at the end of this week’s meeting, delegates voted to allow ministers to preside at same-sex weddings in states where the unions are legal and local congregational leaders approve. Nineteen states and the District recognize same-sex marriage.
The votes were a sweeping victory for Presbyterian gay-rights advocates. The denomination in 2011 eliminated barriers to ordaining clergy with same-sex partners, but ministers were still barred from celebrating same-sex marriages and risked church penalties for doing so.