Beliefnet News

By Rachel Pomerance
2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The United Methodist Church is poised to become the next U.S. church to consider divesting from Israel, a topic so controversial that it prompted the Presbyterian Church (USA) to backpedal on its own divestment program two years ago.
At its quadrennial General Conference this April in Fort Worth, Texas, the Methodists, with more than 8 million U.S. members, will debate whether to pull church holdings in Caterpillar, which provides the Israel Defense Forces with bulldozers.
The proposal from the Methodists’ General Board of Church and Society comes as the church’s women’s division offers a 224-page study guide on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been slammed as “inflammatory, inaccurate and polemical” by Jewish groups.
Citing references that compare Israelis to Nazis and characterizing the creation of Israel as “original sin,” four U.S. Jewish women’s groups told Methodist leaders the guide “would simply take anyone who turns to it … on the wrong path.”
The guide is “anti-Israel and anti-Jewish from cover to cover,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
The author of the report, the Rev. Stephen Goldstein, who works for the church’s General Board of Global Ministries, was unable to be reached for comment.
James Winkler, general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, said he had just received the study report and not yet read the “troubling quotes.” However, he explained the rationale for divestment.
“The board felt that after 40 years of statements and resolutions from our denomination, as well as from many other churches and other organizations urging Israel’s withdrawal from occupied lands in the West Bank, that something more needed to be done,” he said.
“The feeling was that economic pressure was needed.” Winkler said. Caterpillar was chosen because Israel uses its products to “destroy Palestinian homes, build bypass roads and build the wall of separation.”
Some $5 million of the United Methodist Church’s $17 billion portfolio is currently invested in Caterpillar.
In a statement, Caterpillar says it complies with foreign and domestic laws, stating that “for the past four years, activists have wrongly included Caterpillar in a publicity campaign aimed at advancing their much larger political agenda” and that protests “neither change the facts nor our position.”
Whether the Methodist church’s divestment proposal will meet the same fate as its counterparts in other churches remains to be seen.
In June 2006, the Presbyterians replaced a 2004 call for a “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” with a plan for more peace-minded investment in the region.
The United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church have all stymied or reversed course on earlier attempts at divestment.
For its part, the United Methodist Church is not of one mind on divestment.
“It seems grossly unfair that the church exclusively target Israel for divestment,” said Mark Tooley, director of the Methodist program at the Institute on Religion & Democracy, which takes a conservative approach to public policy.
The church’s social policy arm “has always been very, very critical of Israel like other mainline Protestant agencies have been, and will fault Israel almost exclusively for the lack of peace,” Tooley said.
The Rev. Timothy Bias, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Peoria, Ill., where Caterpillar CEO James Owens is a member, said the divestment proposal helps “raise the consciousness of the conflict.”
However, he regrets that the church did not first broach the issue with Caterpillar.
“If we’re going to make resolutions, we need to have conversations with all parties involved,” Bias said.
For the last several years, Jewish organizations have made that argument to mainline Protestant churches considering divestment.
“The state of interfaith relations between the Jewish community and the mainline Protestant churches is very much a work in progress,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for American Jewish Committee, who spoke against divestment on behalf of mainstream Jewish groups at the Methodist church’s pre-conference meeting on Jan. 25 in Fort Worth. “We certainly are much more engaged with each other. We certainly are much more aware of each other’s issues.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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