A Message to Caterpillar: Don’t Profit From Human Rights Violations
On Monday, February 6th, the Anglican Church of England voted to end financial investments in companies supporting Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The General Synod, a policy-making assembly, overwhelmingly backed the call by the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem to divest from "companies profiting from the illegal occupation … until they change their policies."
One of the companies identified as a target includes Caterpillar Inc., the American manufacturer that produces the bulldozers Israel uses to build the West Bank separation wall. Israel also uses them to demolish Palestinian homes–since 1967, Israel has demolished 12,000 Palestinian homes, leaving 70,000 homeless.
The Anglicans invest about 2.5 million pounds in Caterpillar. The move to divest follows months of negotiations with the company about Israel’s use of their equipment.
Caterpillar insists publicly it does not provide the militarily-modified bulldozers directly to Israel. It claims the US military sells them to Israel, a possible violation of the US Foreign Arms Export Control Act of 1976. This law limits the use of US weapons against civilian populations.
The Daily Telegraph reported the vote does not bind the Church Commissioners, the managers of denominational investments. Still, it is "hugely symbolic" since it is now a stated position on the morality of the Israeli occupation and companies abetting it.
The decision was well-received by many, opposed by others, and follows a church tradition of economic activism on this issue.
Former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African activist and Nobel Prize winner, is a vocal champion of Palestinian rights. He compared Palestinian life under occupation to his own experiences living under Apartheid.
Archbishop Tutu wrote in 2002, "yesterday’s South African township dwellers can tell you about today’s life in the Occupied Territories." In the same article, he promoted a letter several hundred Jewish South Africans wrote drawing "an explicit analogy between apartheid and current Israeli policies."
The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, stated that this vote "sends a clear message to Caterpillar that profiting from human rights violations is not compatible with socially responsible business practice."
Joining in support of the resolution, Rev. John Gladwin, Bishop of Chelmsford told the meeting that although the cause of the conflict was the government of Israel, not Caterpillar, it is still vital to invest with ethics in mind.
The American-based Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) commended the move. Their statement suggested that divestment "stands in the best tradition of nonviolent efforts for change." JVP supports divestment since "governments have failed to end the occupation." They contend that non-governmental groups such as faith-based institutions, unions, companies and individual citizens have to "take the lead in seeking justice."
Pro-Israeli groups protested immediately. The Anti-Defamation League called it a "moral outrage."
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey claimed to be "ashamed to be an Anglican." He charges it "ignores the trauma of ordinary Jewish people" in Israel subjected to "terrorist attacks."
The Anglican decision was not made in a vacuum. Other churches, particularly in the United States, are exploring the use of economic engagement to pressure Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories. Increasingly, churches and Christian religious leaders in Palestine are calling for divestment and boycott from outsiders.
Last year, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches’s central committee urged WCC members to take economic measures against the Israeli occupation to push for a peaceful settlement.
In 2004, the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed a bill to explore "phased, selective divestment," after a period of economic engagement. They argued it was part of their commitment to morally responsible investment. They are re-considering this decision at their June, 2006 General Assembly meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Heavy external pressure from supporters of Israel are causing some within the church to doubt the move. It passed by a vast majority, so spectators expect a lively debate.
For activists in the United Kingdom, the battle for Palestinian rights found some success with the Synod’s vote. Nick Dearden, of War on Want, urged "the Church Commissioners to enforce the Synod’s decision, and to send a clear message that companies like Caterpillar have a responsibility to ensure their products are not used to violate human rights."
In the United States, student activists are meeting later this month at Georgetown University for the 5th annual Palestine Solidarity Movement conference. They will discuss rebuilding the campus divestment movement and hold training sessions for new and experienced solidarity activists. Speakers include Palestinian activist Omar Barghouthi; British academic boycott advocate Sue Blackwell; Ali Abunimah, co-founder of Electronic Initfada; and dozens of veteran divestment activists.
Will Youmans is a Washington, DC-based writer. He blogs at www.kabobfest.com