Presbyterians in South East US call for divestment

By Zayd Sifri, Israeli Occupation Archive – 5 Oct 2011

In a part of the United States that is rarely recognized for its support of Palestinian rights, the South East continues to create pockets of resistance to the dominant narrative on Israel-Palestine through the steadfast efforts of the Presbyterians.

Last week the Presbyterian Church (USA) published a report containing a resolution recommending that the Presbyterian Church divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions for their non-peaceful pursuits in Israel and the Occupied Territories. This call for divestment is not the first instance of the Presbyterian Church’s involvement in the Palestine question.  Rather, it is the result of ongoing efforts by the Presbyterian clergy to educate their communities and to promote socially responsible positions on issues in the Middle East.

The Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) submitted its recommendations for divestment to the Presbyterian Church General Assembly on September 9th. The MRTI report, which was published after the official resolution was submitted, explained why the three corporations should be added to the Church’s general divestment list.  The September 9th recommendation will be voted upon at the Presbyterian General Assembly in 2012.

The repercussions of such a divestment lies in its capacity to set an example both inside and outside of the Presbyterian community.  Presbyterian Minister Reverand Fahed Abu-Akel of Atlanta, Georgia a Palestinian Presbyterian acknowledged that a divestment would have little economic influence but explained, “we [as ministers] are responsible to our congregations to show where they should invest their money. The church is essential in changing the American attitude towards Palestine.” If the Presbyterian General Assembly agrees to add the corporations to its divestment list, it will only impact the money belonging to the pensions of ministers as the pensions are tied to the Church’s investments in the aforementioned companies.  Nonetheless, such a divestment signifies that a key US institution adopts a stance in support of Palestinian rights.

Rev. Abu-Akel compared the MRTI request for divestment with those of South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid movement stating that “all the companies with billions of dollars in diamonds, that’s economic pressure. But when the churches took a stance, they had no significant economic means but they had the moral and ethical stance”. By setting such an example the Presbyterian Church hopes to influence the hearts and minds of many Americans.

Origins of the MRTI

Although, various individuals and communities in the Presbyterian Church have been involved in Palestine activism for decades, it was only in 2002 that the prospect of divestment entered Presbyterian dialogue on a national level. Then the Gainesville, Florida congregation presented an overture to the St. Augustine Presbytery in Florida, which recommended divesting from US companies that profited from the Israeli occupation. That same year Rev. Abu-Akel was elected to be the Moderator of the 214th Presbyterian General Assembly that met in Columbus, Ohio. Rev. Tom Are of Northern Georgia commented that Rev. Abu-Akel’s election “was a statement to the whole world”. Considering that Moderator is the highest elected position in the Presbyterian Church.  Rev. Are added, “of course he was the right man for the position as he knows the facts and he’s very good at what he does”.

As Moderator of the General Assembly Rev. Abu-Akel’s lecture on Palestine raised the intrigue and consciousness of many of the attendees in particular Presbyterian Minister Rev. Glenn Dickson from Gainesville, who told him that he had been impacted by the speech and wanted to visit Israel-Palestine.

Rev. Dickson consequently organized a trip to visit Israel and the Occupied Territories with a retired elder from his congregation. In Hebron, Rev Dickson’s job “was to accompany one or two children from home to school to protect them from the settlers and the military”. Witnessing the occupation and oppression the Palestinians were subjected to reminded Rev Dickson of the white treatment of African-Americans in the South.

Upon returning to Gainesville, Rev. Dickson shared his experiences with his congregation.  His progressive congregation responded to him by stating, ‘Why are you still talking we need to do something!’” The church then made an overture to go the Presbytery of St. Augustine urging the church to divest from American companies that are harming the Palestinians and supporting the occupation. Two years later, the MRTI was created to investigate the adoption of divestment from certain companies as an official Church policy.

Grassroots work

Presbyterians have been organizing trips to the Middle East since the colonial era. In fact, the American University of Beirut and the American University of Cairo were both founded by Presbyterian missionaries in 1866 and 1919 respectively. Following in a similar tradition Rev. Abu-Akel firmly believes that “taking people over there, to see the injustice first-hand is what changes them”. This is primarily because “the American public’s understanding of occupation is zilch”. Heading the largest Presbytery in the South East, Rev. Abu-Akel is regularly engaged in educating his community in Atlanta on Israel-Palestine through lectures and seminars primarily using materials produced by the Presbyterian Church.

Rev. Tom Are has been involved in educating his community on the Palestine question for 25 years. When he was first acquainted with the topic he reacted in shock and anger. “I claimed to be an educated person but I didn’t know the history and I felt like some one didn’t tell me it,” he recounted. “Here I am preaching about Israel in the bible and not knowing anything about the situation today.” 25 years later Rev. Are has immersed himself in the subject and holds classes on Israel-Palestine on Monday nights at his home.

Presbyterians like Reverends Abu-Akel and Are have been steadfast in countering the influential wave of Christian Zionist theology that prevents many Americans from considering Palestinian rights. “Christian Zionist theology teaches that the presence of Palestinian Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land is against the will of God,” explained Rev. Abu-Akel. Referencing the influential ideas of Pat Robertson and John Hagee. Concurrently, Rev. Are lamented, “the church has done a poor job educating people and allowing this to happen. If you examine that theology it doesn’t really stand up to any thing in the bible”.

Presbyterians have had a long tradition of involvement in human rights issues. The current Presbyterian thrust to support Palestinian rights in the South East is part of a longer history of activism from the church and what appears to be a steadily growing movement to support Palestinian rights in the United States.

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