Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the Presbyterian Church (USA) on Sunday for the denomination’s “disgraceful” decision last week to disassociate with companies supplying equipment to Israeli armed forces.
The denomination voted Friday to divest holdings in three companies — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions — that the church argues supply Israel in its occupation of Palestinian territory.
The vote was held at the church’s biennial general assembly meeting, with 310 members voting in favor of the move and 303 voting against. On its website, the church noted there were “audible gasps” from many in the crowd immediately following the step.
But Mr. Netanyahu had a much more pointed reaction Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The prime minister said the move demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Middle East, and he said Presbyterian leaders cannot see how Israel differs from its often brutal and repressive neighbors.
“It should trouble all people and of conscience and morality because it’s so disgraceful,” he said of the vote. “You come to Israel, and you see the one democracy that upholds basic human rights, that guards the rights of all minorities, that protects Christians.”
Mr. Netanyahu, who lived for more than a decade in the U.S. over several stints as a boy and young man, then made a puckish suggestion for how the Presbyterian leaders could educate themselves about the Middle East.
“I would suggest to the Presbyterian organizations — fly to the Middle East. Come and see Israel for the embattled democracy that it is, and then take a bus tour. Go to Libya, go to Syria, go to Iraq — and see the difference. And I would give them two pieces of advice — make sure it is an armor-plated bus and, second, don’t say that you’re Christians.”
Presbyterian supporters of divestment analogized the action to the worldwide campaign of sanctions and boycotts against South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1970s and 80s.
“Because we are a historical peacemaking church, what we have done is we have stood up for nonviolent means of resistance to oppression, and we have sent a clear message to a struggling society that we support their efforts to resist in a nonviolent way the oppression being thrust upon them,” the Rev. Jeffrey DeYoe of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network told The Associated Press.
The church seems to understand its vote — which reportedly will result in the divesting of about $21 million in investments — is highly controversial.
“In no way is this a reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers,” moderator Heath Rada said immediately after the vote.
The church, which has about 1.8 million members and became the largest U.S. church denomination to divest itself of Israel-related holdings, also added a preamble to its motion, seeking to head off criticism that Presbyterians are abandoning Israel.
The Presbyterian Church USA “has a long-standing commitment to peace in Israel and Palestine. We recognize the complexity of the issues, the decades-long struggle, the pain suffered and inflicted by policies and practices of both the Israeli government and Palestinian entities,” the preamble says.
That defense hardly was enough for Mr. Netanyahu, who argued his nation goes out of its way to protect Christians.
“Christians are persecuted throughout the Middle East. So most Americans understand that Israel is a beacon of civilization and moderation,” he said.