In Tampa gathering United Methodist Church rejects divestment from Israel

05/03/12 Janelle Irwin
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Late yesterday in Tampa the general conference of the United Methodist Church rejected a measure to divest from three companies that aid in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Supporters of divestment said it failed because delegates did not have all of the information.

After holding out hope for a week and a half, some supporters of the Kairos Response that called on divestment from Israel cried. But most of them marched through the Tampa Convention Center chanting their commitment to Palestine and human rights. Connie Baker, a member of the United Methodist Church from Illinois, said she was just shocked.

“We were expecting the body to vote for divestment. All of the feedback that we had coming into this session was that they would vote for divestment.”

The divestment issue began in a small sub-committee where it passed, but it was nearly unrecognizable because of amendments. The newer version eliminated any language that required divestment and instead called on prayerful consideration of positive investments. Kevin Goodwin, a delegate from Delaware said before the final vote that blaming the three targeted companies – Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard – wasn’t fair.

“It moves from judging companies from what they make, like tobacco, alcohol and pornography, to how their products are used. One of the United Methodists’ values is trust. Let’s trust our agency assigned with the task of investing our funds to do their job of balancing our social principles and their fiduciary duties to their 91,000 participants.”

And Don House, from Texas cautioned the delegation that voting for the “minority report” which included divestment could leave the church vulnerable to lawsuits.

“I had a conversation with general counsel with the general board of pensions and health benefits about the fiduciary risk – or the risk of lawsuit - that would be opened up to the general conference where the general conference has identified specific companies for dis-investment. It would be our first time and indeed it does – it opens us up for the lawsuits.”

But Connie Baker from the Kairos Response group said that isn’t true and it was statements like those that put this measure into the ground this year and back in 2008.

“We believe that there was misinformation, both on the podium as well as some of the speakers against the petition, that were basically fear mongering. Churches don’t fall under ERISA, which is the regulations governing fiduciary responsibilities, because it’s the right of churches to divest based on moral issues. And so all of that discussion was fear mongering when they said that we might get sued.”

There was also a common theme among divestment opponents and that was an appreciation of America’s friendship with Israel. Bob Long, an Oklahoma church delegate, said he feels sorry for the Palestinians, but he also feels sorry for the Israelis.

“He said to me, ‘Bob, do you remember how many suicide bombings we used to have in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And so we built the wall and we no longer have those suicide bombings.’ Would you want Al-Qaeda living in your backyard – those who are set on destroying you. As Methodists, we need to do positive things to work for peace in the Holy Land and understand this is a complicated political issue.”

Based on the rules of the United Methodist general conference, each side of a debate had the opportunity to have three speakers chosen at random. One that spoke in favor of divestment was Robert Lee from Western North Carolina. He studied under Beth Corrie whose cousin, Rachel Corrie, was killed in the Gaza strip by a Caterpillar bulldozer. He said the watered down amended version of the Kairos petition was charity without justice.

“Friends, if we’re trying to show that this is the conference of change, it is time to put our money where our mouth is. It is time to say that we stand up against an oppressor and join hands with the oppressed. It is the time to bring about God’s reign on earth as we work for peace, justice and mercy.”

The group still has some options. They can bring the issue up again at the next general conference, but that’s not until 2016. Divestment supporters said that there may be some legal recourse to challenge the conference’s decision, but would not go on record as to whether or not that option would be explored. The version of their petition that passed supported Palestinians by requiring companies associated with the church to abide by a code of conduct. However, that code would only apply to employees.

Previous Coverage of the Kairos Response

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I suspect that the correct spelling for Arissa is ERISA. ERISA stands for Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.