Inter-faith group calls on the United Methodists to divest from 3 major companies doing business with Israel
Today is the first day of the United Methodist Church’s general conference in Tampa. Some church members and other human rights activists are asking the denomination to pull investments from companies whose products aide in Israeli violence against Palestinians. About 30 supporters wore yellow to a press conference at a downtown Tampa hotel this morning to symbolize hope for the end of suffering in Palestine. Opponents of the divestment measure argue that positive investments should be used in the region, but Mary Ann Swenson, a United Methodist bishop in southern California, saw during visits to the West Bank that that wasn’t working.
“And the pushback came very strong telling me ‘how could you have changed your mind’? And I said, well, I went to Hebron and I saw people that had to climb down the back alley and carry their babies through a back window to get into their homes. And I saw 1500 soldiers protecting a few people in a settlement. I had to stop this and I saw the homes that were being demolished by Caterpillar now and we have to stop that. I saw how what we had been trying to do wasn’t enough and we had to stand up to do more and make the changes.”
The divestment petition is called the United Methodist Kairos Response. It calls for the Church’s board of pensions to withdraw any investments in the three targeted companies. The initiative calls on the immediate divestment from three companies that provide products to Israel – Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar. Jim Winkler is a United Methodist Church member and has been an integral part of that push.
“For 40 years, the United Methodist Church has passed petitions and statements calling for the end of the occupation decrying Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people. And for 40 years, these fine words have sat on shelves in our offices and in our churches.”
Winkler said the group made multiple attempts to meet with executives from Caterpillar. The company sells heavy machinery to Israel that is modified and used to demolish Palestinian homes. However, Winkler added:
“They continued to meet with the general board of pensions because they aren’t getting any pressure from the general board of pensions and health benefits of the United Methodist Church to stop selling D9 Caterpillar tractors to Israel. No pressure’s been placed on HP or Motorola from the board of pensions. I’m sorry to say that, but it is the truth. It is the time for this denomination to say ‘we’re not going to put up with this anymore.’”
A spokesperson for Motorola declined to be interviewed, but said in an email statement:
“As a well-respected and responsible corporate citizen, our global activities are conducted in accordance with U.S., local, country and other applicable laws, as well as our own code of business conduct.”
Hewlett-Packard didn’t respond to the interview request by deadline. But a spokesperson for Caterpillar, Jim Dugan, said his company does not directly supply equipment to Israel.
“Caterpillar, in these instances, are providing products, not just the D9 earth moving equipment, but other products as well, to the U.S. government through this foreign military sales program. The U.S. government then supplies the products to the Israeli government.”
The petition filed with the Church’s board of pensions is set to be heard in the Financial Administrative Legislative Committee this week. Leaders of the initiative are optimistic that the measure will clear that committee. It’s an effort that has drawn inter-faith support. Rabbi Brant Rosen leads a Jewish congregation in the Chicago area. After taking several trips to the area, Rosen grew up identifying with Israel.
“But the trips, invariably, that I took were these hermetically sealed trips on one side of the green line that presented one image of Israel. To be honest, I was afraid to venture to that other side both physically and emotionally and spiritually. But what really caused a transformation with my relationship with this issue was meeting Palestinians.”
And Sandra Tamari is a member of the Quakers. She’s also an American Palestinian with a background in economic development. She said the argument that positive investment in Palestine as opposed to divestment in companies who profit from Israeli occupation doesn’t make sense.
“Palestinians currently have a GDP per capita of $1400. Israelis have a GDP per capita of $30,000. We pay the same prices for consumer goods. We pay more for water when we can get it and electricity when we can get it. The checkpoints hinder any kind of trade or business.”
Divestment is one part of the non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation known as BDS or boycott, divestment and sanctions. Regardless of how it’s done, for some, ending the occupation is personal. Alex Awad is a Palestinian Christian. He was born in Jerusalem and still lives there. Awad said when he talks to people about the changes that need to happen, he’s not just talking about something he read in the newspaper.
“I have seen the suffering of the Palestinian people at the checkpoints. I have seen the wall going up through the years. I have seen the land confiscation. I have seen the home demolition. I have seen olive trees – thousands of them – uprooted in order to build the wall.
But on a trip deeper into the West Bank, Awad realized things were only getting worse in the region.
“The people have only six-hours of electricity every 24 hours. There’s a lot of suffering. There’s a lot of pain.”
In 2003, Rachel Corrie, a member of the International Solidarity Movement, was killed in the Gaza Strip. She was crushed by a bulldozer – one built by Caterpillar and driven by a member of the Israeli military. Her parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie didn’t know much about the movement back then – only that it was important to their daughter. But following her death, Cindy Corrie said she spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do next.
“There were a lot of options in there. Ultimately, there was no way to return to our previous life. So, with the support of many, many people who helped us learn and grow in the process – working on this issue, connecting with people in Israel and in Palestine, really learning and being nurtured by them – really helped us to find a path.”
An initial investigation after Corrie’s death claimed that the driver of the bulldozer could not see her. However, according to Cindy Corrie, the circumstances are still being investigated. Craig and Cindy Corrie are also still involved in a civil suit in Israel and support divestment initiatives. The United Methodist Church’s conference will continue at the Tampa Convention Center through May 4th. Divestment advocates plan to maintain a presence at the conference until it is over.
The Corries will be guests on Last Call Wednesday evening at 5:30 on 88.5 FM.
Mike Madison contributed to this report.
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