Rachel Corrie was a 23-year-old peace activist from Seattle, Wash. On March 13, 2003, she was crushed to death by an armored Israeli bulldozer as she attempted to block it from demolishing a Palestinian home in Gaza. Crane’s Chicago Business recently reported that Caterpillar, the company that produced the kind of machine that killed Rachel Corrie, has begun to run ads to counter the bad publicity it received from cooperation with the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Much of the adverse public opinion has come from a stock divestment movement centered in mainline Protestant churches.
The first major initiative came from the Presbyterian Church USA in 2004. The church’s general assembly voted a broad measure to divest from companies doing business with Israel. After waves of critical reaction, the program was recrafted as a selective and phased divestment from companies collaborating with the occupation, beginning with Caterpillar—which is now said to have severed its ties with the Israeli Defense Forces. Other U.S. denominations were more cautious. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided against divestment; the United Methodist Church continues to monitor the situation. The United Church of Christ resolved to employ various strategies of “economic leverage” in the promotion of peace, including “divesting from those companies that continue to profit from the perpetuation of violence including the Occupation.”
Last winter the synod of the Anglican Church in Britain voted in favor of divestment, with Rowan Williams, the respected archbishop of Canterbury, supporting the measure. A firestorm of criticism ensued. Subsequently, the church’s investment committee refused to honor the synod’s recommendation.
Next month the P.C.U.S.A. will consider more than two dozen resolutions to rescind or modify its position. The reconsideration prompts me to offer the following comments on divestment as an instrument for correcting business and government abuses.
First, divestment is a legitimate tool of social accountability to deal with private sector participation in government-sponsored activities that are either patently immoral or in large degree morally problematic. In this case, the conduct of the occupation is at the very least enormously problematic. The moral complexities of the wider conflict are not sufficient to offset the immorality (and illegality) of the tools of occupation, like demolishing homes, building settlements, confiscating land and targeted killings.
Divestment and other investor responsibility initiatives are also appropriate as actions of civil society when, over a long period of time, other forms of governmental or intergovernmental intervention have proven ineffective. In large measure, the divestment movement is an effort to withdraw the carte blanche the U.S. government has given to Israeli policy. Governments take notice when business becomes worried.
Second, divestment, especially when it is narrowly targeted, as the Presbyterian measure ultimately was, should not be confused with a boycott. Where opposition to Israeli occupation policy is concerned, advocates should bear in mind that given memories of Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses in 1930’s Germany and the Arab boycott of Israel following independence, boycotts will inevitably be regarded as profoundly threatening. Likewise opponents of the divestment movement should restrain themselves from the rhetorical sleight-of-hand that confuses targeted measures aimed at perceived injustices with large-scale boycotts intended to impoverish a whole people.
Third, anti-Semitic comments by advocates of divestment will inevitably tarnish the movement. Unfortunately, some of the proponents of divestment appear to have engaged in such discourse. The offending parties should apologize with “a firm purpose of amendment.” Furthermore, responsible advocates of divestment should denounce anti-Semitism, both because such denunciation is right and because it will strengthen their movement. Likewise, divestment’s critics ought to renounce exaggerated charges of anti-Semitism in the attempt to keep Israeli practices beyond criticism.
Ideally, engagement is preferable to imposing penalties, and flexible use of economic leverage in the interest of peace, as proposed by the U.C.C., is superior to divestment alone. Exercise of investor responsibility, however, will increase awareness and remind political leaders that if they persist in conducting business as usual, a concerned public will find other means to do what is right.