United Methodists explore divestment proposals



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

United Methodists explore divestment proposals

March 5, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011  
tparham@flumc.org    Orlando {0809}

NOTE: This article was produced and distributed Jan. 29 by United Methodist News Service.

An e-Review Feature
By Linda Bloom**

FORT WORTH, Texas — Would divestment from companies connected to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land help bring about change in the Middle East?

Roger Kallenberg of Jewish Voice for Peace speaks in favor of a petition recommending United Methodist divestment from Caterpillar Inc., while Rabbi Gary Greenebaum (background) waits to speak against it on behalf of the American Jewish Committee. The United Methodist Board of Church and Society says Caterpillar profits from illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and contributes to the occupation by supplying Israeli Defense Forces with heavy equipment. About $5 million of the denomination’s estimated $17 billion pension portfolio is invested in Caterpillar stock. A UMNS photo by Marta W. Aldrich. Photo #08-0766.

Four United Methodist speakers explored that question during a Jan. 25 panel discussion on “Divestment, the Middle East and Sudan” during the Pre-General Conference News Briefing sponsored by United Methodist Communications.

General Conference, which meets every four years, is the denomination’s top legislative body. The 2008 assembly will be April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth.

The Rev. Steve Sprecher, a director of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, called divestment “a time-honored policy” within The United Methodist Church.

Sprecher was part of the committee of the Board of Church and Society that led the social action agency to send a petition to General Conference recommending divestment from Caterpillar Inc., the heavy equipment manufacturer based in Peoria, Ill. The petition charges the company profits from illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and contributes to the occupation by supplying Israeli Defense Forces with heavy equipment.

About $5 million of the denomination’s estimated $17 billion pension portfolio is invested in Caterpillar stock.

A different Church and Society petition to General Conference applies to Sudan, asking those who invest United Methodist funds divest of all equity and debt holdings of companies doing business with the government of Sudan. The petition cites concern about the humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Resolution 312

Sprecher pointed to a resolution (#312) passed by the 2004 General Conference opposing Israeli settlements in Palestinian land. “This is the current policy of our church,” he said. “So how do we make it more than just words?”

The Rev. Steve Sprecher, a director of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, presents the reasons behind the board’s petition for divestment from Caterpillar Inc., based on the manufacturer’s business practices in the Middle East. The denomination’s social agency charges Caterpillar profits from illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and contributes to the occupation by supplying Israeli Defense Forces with heavy equipment. A UMNS photo by Marta W. Aldrich. Photo #08-0767.

He stressed that the action against Caterpillar is proposed because the company’s bulldozers and other equipment are being used to clear Palestinian land, destroy Palestinian homes and olive groves and help erect the “wall of separation,” some of which is on Palestinian land.

The Rev. W. Douglas Mills, an executive with the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, noted that divestment is not such a simple solution and could have a negative impact for a denomination that places a high value on Christian-Jewish relations, the horror of the Holocaust and the quest for peace in the Middle East.

The Commission on Christian Unity has its own General Conference resolution that calls upon United Methodists to continue “to advocate for a peaceful settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians through negotiation and diplomacy rather than through methods of violence and coercion.”

Mills said he likes processes that foster dialogue and is “a big fan of shareholder advocacy.”

During General Conference, the denomination can show both Israelis and Palestinians “that United Methodists can stand for peace,” he added, while demonstrating to people in the American Jewish community that a relationship with them is considered valuable.

Selective divestment

Susanne Hoder, moderator of the Interfaith Peace Initiative and member of the United Methodist New England Annual (regional) Conference Task Force on Selective Divestment, stressed that divestment related to Israel is aimed only at companies that support the occupation of Palestinian lands.

The denomination must back up its previous stance on illegal Israeli settlements with action that will help bring about change. “In the past four years, the situation has not gotten better; it’s gotten markedly worse,” she said.

Hoder considers divestment to be “a legitimate Christian response” to the crisis. “If we are going to make a difference, we need to cut our ties to the occupation,” she added.

The New England Conference passed a resolution in 2005 calling for divestment from companies that support the Israeli occupation in significant ways. A June 2007 report from a conference divestment task force identified 20 companies fitting that description.

The denomination’s Virginia, California-Nevada and North Central New York conferences have also passed resolutions relating to possible selective divestment.

In a petition to General Conference, the Oregon-Idaho Conference is asking the church to “refrain and divest of companies that harm Palestinians and exacerbate the Sudan crisis.”

Advocacy and dialogue

Dave Zellner, chief investment officer with the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits, noted that his agency is recognized as “the leader among denominations” on investor advocacy.

He called for advocacy, rather than divestment, with Caterpillar. “With our partners, we are very effective in making change,” he said, citing negotiations with major drug companies to make therapy for diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS available at lower prices. With divestment, “we wouldn’t have had a voice at the table and may not have made the progress we have made.”

A position paper issued by the pension board on investments in companies doing business with Israel states that the agency “views divestment as a policy of last resort.”

The Rev. Timothy Bias asks if representatives of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society spoke directly with executives from Caterpillar Inc. before passing their resolution. The denomination’s social agency has submitted a petition to the 2008 General Conference recommending divestment from the heavy equipment operator based in Peoria, Ill. The petition charges that the company profits from illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and contributes to the occupation by supplying Israeli Defense Forces with heavy equipment. Bias is a General Conference delegate who serves a United Methodist church in Peoria, Ill., where Caterpillar is headquartered. A UMNS photo by Marta W. Aldrich. Photo #08-0768.

The Rev. Timothy Bias, a General Conference delegate and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Peoria, where 70 percent of the membership has employment ties to Caterpillar, questioned Sprecher on whether directors or staff from Church and Society had spoken directly with Caterpillar executives before passing their proposed resolution.

Sprecher acknowledged they had not, although Jim Winkler, Church and Society’s chief executive, recently met with Jim Owens, chairman of Caterpillar, who also is a United Methodist.

Bias noted that delegates to General Conference are being urged to engage in “holy conferencing” on divisive issues and questioned why the board did not engage in the same practice of dialogue and listening with representatives from Caterpillar. “It just seems to me that we would serve ourselves much better … if we would have conversations before we pass resolutions,” he said.

Several Jewish visitors spoke briefly during the short question and answer period for the panel. Mark Braverman, a member of Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace, urged United Methodists to adopt divestment, adding that it was not an anti-Semitic action.

However, Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of the Department for Interreligious Affairs, American Jewish Committee, said such an action does “feel” anti-Semitic. He proposed investment in Israel rather than divestment.

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*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York. United Methodist News Service is the news service for The United Methodist Church and part of the ministries of United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.




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