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Three representatives from the Presbyterian Church USA, which has announced plans to cut ties to firms that support Israeli soldiers and settlers on the West Bank and Gaza, outlined their denomination’s controversial divestment policy before a crowd of 70 students and community members in Emerson Hall last night.
The panel resurrected the dormant campus debate over Israeli divestment, which flared in 2002 when 75 Harvard faculty members signed a petition calling on the University to sell its $600 million stake in companies that have significant operations in the Jewish state.
The same year, a counter-divestment drive garnered signatures from 439 Harvard faculty members, who objected that Israel had been singled out for criticism.
While all three speakers yesterday supported the Presbyterian Church’s decision to divest, Rami R. Sarafa ’07, president of the Society of Arab Students (SAS), said that “at this time, we and our co-sponsoring organizations are not promoting divestment but are promoting discussion and debate about it.” The International Relations Council, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, and the Woodbridge Society of International Students joined SAS to co-sponsor the event along with several graduate school and alumni groups.
Last June the Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly—which represents the denomination’s 2.5 million adherents nationwide, initiated “a process of phased selective divestment” but did not call for the immediate sale of stock in firms with ties to Israel, said the Rev. Thomas F. Kepler of the Boston Presbytery.
Initially, church members will approach managers at multinational corporations that provide support to Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. In the next stage, the church will put forward shareholder resolutions to effect change from within. The church will ultimately divest “only if the other means fail,” Kepler said, adding that no sale of stock will occur before June 2006.
Some students expressed frustration after moderator Paul Beran, a political scientist at Northeastern University, asked audience members to refrain from expressing “value judgments” in a question-and-answer session after the panel.
Harvard Students for Israel President Sunny Yudkoff ’06 said afterwards that the event “was not a forum for dialogue, and those whose questions expressed dissenting opinions from the speakers were cut short.”
After one student attendee questioned the absence of any anti-divestment voices on the panel, SAS Political Action Committee Chair Deena S. Shakir ’08 told the audience that the event had been designed to give Presbyterian leaders the opportunity to present their church's stance and was "not meant to be a debate.”
In an interview after the event, Shakir said, “Without a basic understanding of what a divestment actually entailed, no discussion or debate can really take place.”
DECISION TO DIVEST
Panelists argued that last June’s divestment resolution is in keeping with the Presbyterian Church’s history. The church has previously pursued divestment efforts against other targets, including tobacco companies and firms with ties to South Africa’s apartheid government.
Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, a Palestinian-American pastor from Atlanta, noted that Presbyterianism is the largest Protestant denomination in the Middle East, with half a million members in the region. “For the last 200 years, the Presbyterian Church has been involved there,” he said.
Abu-Akel said that the church supported the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, but that it has repeatedly called on Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders.
“The issue of divestment is not anti-Jewish. It’s not anti-Israel. And it’s not anti-Semitic. It’s anti-occupation,” he said.
Later in the evening, an exchange between one panelist, the Rev. Patricia Budd Kepler, and audience member Joachim C. S. Martillo ’78, elicited outrage from some student attendees.
Martillo said in the question-and-answer period that “suicide attacks against Israel are completely justifiable.”
Budd Kepler responded, “I don’t believe that violence is justifiable on any side. I also don’t think it’s long-term effective.”
In an interview after the event, Yudkoff said that Budd Kepler “spoke more to the efficacy of such actions than to the right or wrong of suicide bombings.”
“The event was disturbing as it took such a laissez-faire approach to Palestinian terrorism,” Yudkoff said.
But Budd Kepler vehemently denied any suggestion that she had taken an equivocal stance on the issue of terrorism. “For the record, let me clarify, the Presbyterian Church has condemned suicide bombers,” she said, adding that she fully backs the church’s position.
Five members of the Somerville Divestment Group handed out fliers and organized a petition drive in front of Emerson Hall before the event, but SAS leaders emphasized that they had no ties to the activists.
Sarafa’s Adams House roommate, J. Douglas Jamieson ’07, who is not an SAS officer, said he asked a security guard posted at Emerson Hall to order the Somerville activists to leave the site. The guard informed the activists that they did not have the required permit to distribute literature in the yard.
Somerville Divestment Group member John Spritzler, a Harvard School of Public Health research scientist, said that “if anyone had said...in 1968, ‘do you have a permit to leaflet on campus?’ everyone would have laughed.” But Spritzler and his fellow activists complied with the guard’s order.
—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at email@example.com.
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