U.S. Church Puts 5 Banks From Israel on a Blacklist – Rick Gladstone/The New York Times
The pension board of the United Methodist Church — one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States, with more than seven million members — has placed five Israeli banks on a list of companies that it will not invest in for human rights reasons, the board said in a statement on Tuesday.
It appeared to be the first time that a pension fund of a large American church had taken such a step regarding the Israeli banks, which help finance settlement construction in what most of the world considers illegally occupied Palestinian territories.
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Palestinian advocates, both in and outside the church, described the step as an important advance in the Boycott, Divest and Sanction campaign, or B.D.S., an international effort to pressure Israel economically over the Palestinian issue. Others within the church, however, called those claims misleading, noting that the church remains invested in other Israeli companies and that members had overwhelmingly opposed divestment resolutions.
There was no immediate comment from Israeli officials.
Nonetheless, the inclusion of Israeli banks on what is essentially a blacklist compiled by the pension board of a large American church, appears bound to upset the Israeli government, which devotes considerable effort to combating resolutions by academic institutions, businesses and church organizations to divest from Israeli companies over the issue of Israeli settlements and the occupation of Palestinian lands held since the 1967 war.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has described the divestment movement as a campaign to destroy Israel.
The Israeli banks on the United Methodist Church’s list — Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, First International Bank of Israel, Israel Discount Bank and Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot — were among 39 companies from several countries that have been excluded from the pension board’s portfolio for not meeting its Human Rights Investment Policy guideline.
M. Colette Nies, a spokeswoman for the pension board, based in Glenview, Ill., said that the guideline, approved by the board in 2014 and carried out last year, applied to 14 different regions around the world, including the Middle East.
The list also includes an Israeli construction concern, Shikun & Binui, which Palestinian advocates say is heavily involved in settlement building.
Ms. Nies said in the statement that the pension fund remained invested in “approximately 18 Israeli companies that meet our investment criteria.”
The pension board’s assets in 2014 was valued at $20.9 billion, according to its annual report.
Susanne Hoder, a spokeswoman for United Methodist Kairos Response, a group within the church that has been aggressively advocating for divestment over the Palestinian issue, said the inclusion of the banks was important because it widened the range of Israeli businesses that are now considered vulnerable to divestment pressure over their ties to settlement construction.
“To our knowledge, this is the first time” that Israeli banks have been considered off-limits for investing by the pension fund of an American church, she said.
Other members of the Kairos group said they would push for more divestment at the church’s next general convention, in Portland, Ore., in May.
But it was clear that the issue of divestment from Israeli companies remains contentious among Methodists. Another advocacy group within the church, United Methodists for Constructive Peacemaking in Israel and Palestine, sharply criticized the United Methodist Kairos Response group in a statement, calling its position misleading.
Bonnie Marden, a spokeswoman for that group, said that while it was correct that a group of Israeli companies had been disqualified by the pension fund’s criteria, “the process and protocol had nothing to do with the goals of U.M. Kairos as they are attempting to convey.”
The Israeli occupation has been an emotional subject in other American church groups and has led to strains with Israel and pro-Israel groups in cases where church members acted to divest.
In July the United Church of Christ, with about one million members, voted overwhelmingly at its general synod for a resolution calling for divestment from companies that profit from the occupation and a boycott of products from Israeli settlements. While the vote had no practical economic effect, the Israeli government called the church’s position distorted and historically biased.