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Bishop backs off push to divest funds

Massachusetts Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, a leading Christian advocate for Palestinian rights, has told a local Jewish organization that he will oppose efforts, now sweeping through mainline Protestantism, to divest church funds from Israel.

Shaw's statement, nearly four years after he provoked the ire of local Jewish leaders by joining a pro-Palestinian demonstration in front of the Israeli consulate, paves the way for a joint Jewish-Episcopal trip to Israel and Palestine this winter during which each group will introduce the other to different perspectives on the Middle East conflict.

The American Jewish Committee, a century-old advocacy organization with an emphasis on interfaith dialogue, had told the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts that it could not proceed with preparations for a joint trip unless Shaw publicly articulated his opposition to divestment from Israel.

''Our feeling was, we could not really go on an interreligious trip if the divestment issue were not resolved," said Lawrence D. Lowenthal, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Greater Boston chapter. ''This really is a gut issue for the Jewish community -- I know that Christians don't see it this way, but increasingly the Jewish community sees this as a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the state of Israel."

In his statement to the Jewish group, Shaw wrote, ''I do not support proposals for divestment in Israel." He said divestment is ''especially inappropriate" now, at a moment he described as a ''period of hope for peace," and he also said divestment would harm Palestinians because of the interrelationship of the Israeli and Palestinian economies. ''I will continue to work for the rights of the Palestinian people and a secure state of Israel," Shaw wrote.

The divestment issue has become one of the most sensitive in Jewish-Christian relations in the aftermath of a decision last summer by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to begin a process of ''phased, selective divestment" in multinational corporations that operate in Israel.

In February, the central committee of the World Council of Churches, a Geneva-based ecumenical organization, commended the Presbyterian Church's action and encouraged other denominations to consider using economic pressure to push for peace.

In July, the United Church of Christ plans to debate two divestment resolutions at its general synod.

The Episcopal Church USA is midway through a yearlong study of the divestment issue, ''looking to see if there are any companies in our portfolio that are engaged in, or are in any way supportive of, the infrastructure of the occupation, or . . . inadvertently in any product that might be used against innocent Israelis," said Brian Grieves, director of peace and justice ministries for the Episcopal Church.

Grieves said he believes it is more likely the Episcopal Church, which invests its endowment in public companies, will support stockholder resolutions to influence companies doing business in Israel to make sure their products are not used for violence -- rather than pursue a strategy of divestment.

Several other Protestant denominations are exploring different approaches to concerns about Palestinian rights. The United Methodist Church has been talking with Caterpillar Inc. about concerns that the company's bulldozers are being used to demolish Palestinian homes (the company says it does not have the right or means to police how its customers use equipment), and a committee of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has recommended a strategy it calls ''positive investment," by giving money to Israeli and Palestinian peace groups.

''You're dealing with a group of denominations that are deeply appreciative of Judaism, but also feel a sense of revulsion at the way Palestinians are treated, and are trying to figure out how to express both commitments at the same time," said William McKinney, president of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.

The divestment issue has become a major source of controversy between Jews and mainline Protestants, who had in the recent past forged alliances on many political issues.

''My sense is that the relationship between liberal Christians and American Jews is as strained right now as it has been since 1948," said Nancy T. Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at the Boston University School of Theology, referring to the year the state of Israel was established.

The divestment issue is under discussion in Somerville, where the Somerville Divestment Project is collecting signatures for a nonbinding November ballot measure urging the city to divest its retirement board funds from Israel.

The Jewish community is increasingly focused on threats by churches and other organizations to divest from Israel. Last month, the three major Jewish denominations, along with four advocacy groups, sent a letter to mainline Protestant churches, warning that ''any Protestant denomination that would consider the weapon of economic sanctions to be unilaterally and prejudicially used against the state of Israel . . . creates an environment which makes constructive dialogue almost impossible."

Lowenthal said the American Jewish Committee hopes Shaw's opposition to divestment will influence not only the Episcopal Church, but also other denominations. ''We are certainly working on this issue full time," he said.

Some denominations have decided not to pursue divestment, including the Unitarian Universalist Association, based in Boston, according to spokesman John Hurley.

''For UUs and other people concerned about peace in the Middle East, frustration with the lack of progress makes ideas like divestment seem very compelling," says a letter that the Unitarian Universalist Association sends to people who ask about divestment. ''However, in addition to the Unitarian Universalist Association's commitment to a just and lasting peace in Israel/Palestine, we are also committed to maintaining good interfaith relationships here at home."

Shaw was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

Divestment is 'inappropriate' now. -- Bishop Shaw
Divestment is 'inappropriate' now. -- Bishop Shaw
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