When the Presbyterian Church (USA), the nation's major Presbyterian body, decided this summer to move toward cutting off investments in select companies that do business with Israel, Jewish groups were caught off guard. They were outraged that divestment, a tactic utilized against apartheid South Africa, was now being advocated by a major American Protestant denomination as a means of pressuring the Jewish state.

"Prior to its pronouncement, had you asked me if this is on the agenda, I'd say I can't imagine it," said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

Now, however, four months after the General Assembly of the 2.4-million member church overwhelmingly voted to "initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel," similar efforts in other mainline Protestant denominations appear to be gaining momentum.

In September, the Episcopal Church's Socially Responsible Investment committee recommended that the church explore whether to take action against companies that contribute to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Officials with other mainline denominations, including the United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), say there is now heightened interest in divestment within their membership, though there are no specific proposals currently under consideration.

The embrace of divestment by mainline Protestants alarms Jewish communal leaders, who fear it is being used to stigmatize Israel. It also has brought to the fore longstanding divisions over the Middle East between Jewish groups and the liberal Protestant churches, traditional allies on domestic issues.

Mainline church officials emphasize their denominations' support for Israel's right to exist. But the churches, some of which have ties to Palestinian and Arab sister churches, have long been critical of the Israeli occupation and the country's use of force, as well as concerned about the Palestinians' plight. The Presbyterians' resolution on divestment called the occupation "the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict." In addition, the largest mainline denominations--the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church, and Episcopal Church-- have all criticized the security barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. The United Methodist Church's General Board on Church and Society issued a statement October 17 calling on Israel to "withdraw from the occupied territories and to tear down the wall it is constructing," along with calling on Palestinians to end terrorism.

"I think that frankly we see both sides in the conflict," said Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society, contrasting these church statements with what he sees as the U.S. government's one-sided approach. "To bring about peace," he added, "the United States has to use an even-handed approach, which they have completely failed to do over the past 55 years."

The divestment issue has brought to the fore longstanding divisions over the Middle East between Jewish groups and the liberal Protestant churches.

The Rev. Bruce Gillette, who moderated the Presbyterians' Committee on Peacemaking, said the group recommended divestment to the General Assembly because it felt "more needed to be done than mere words" to stop the "deteriorating conditions" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The testimony of Middle Eastern Christians was influential in the decision, he said, noting in particular the remarks of the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran minister from Bethlehem.

"Our General Assembly wants Israel to continue to be, to be secure, to be at peace. We think the [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon policies are not only causing suffering for the Palestinians, but actually will be self-destructive for Israel's security in the long run," said Gillette, co-pastor of Limestone Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Del.

Jewish groups, however, believe that the Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants have unfairly put the onus for the conflict on Israel. They aired their concerns about recent Protestant actions during two days of marathon meetings in Washington last week between representatives of Jewish organizations and mainline Protestant churches.