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Anglicans Vote to Divest From Concerns in Israel-Occupied Areas

NEELA BANERJEE, New York Times, February 9, 2006

WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 – The governing body of the Church of England voted Monday evening to divest from any corporations that it contends support Israel’s activities in Gaza and the West Bank, a move sharply criticized by Jewish groups in Britain and the United States.

The resolution is to “heed the call from our sister church, the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, for morally responsible investment in the Palestinian occupied territories and, in particular, to disinvest from companies profiting from the illegal occupation, such as Caterpillar Inc., until they change their policies.”

The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the 77 million Anglicans, sided with the synod in its vote, which came as a surprise to many.

The idea of divestiture was ushered in almost two years ago by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. at its annual meeting, straining relations between Presbyterians and Jews.

But the Presbyterian Church has yet to divest from any company, and the idea has largely failed to gain support elsewhere, including with the Episcopal Church U.S.A., the American branch of the worldwide Anglican communion. The Church of England’s own Ethical Investment Advisory Group recommended against divestiture last fall.

While the vote is not binding on the church, it would probably compel the influential advisory group to review its decision when it meets in May, said Lou Henderson, a spokesman for the Church of England.

The vote carried symbolic weight with many Jews and Anglicans, although to varying degrees and in disparate ways.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain, a spokesman for the Movement for Reform Judaism in the United Kingdom, said the Church of England’s vote was “puzzling and annoying, but it’s not a Christians-against-Jews issue.”

“It’s the wrong signal at the wrong time, because of the massive changes going on in Israel right now,” Rabbi Romain said, alluding to the Palestinian vote for Hamas and the coming Israeli general elections.

Michael Whine, defense director for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a representative organization, said, “The vote was simplistic and unbalanced, and fails to take into account the realities of the Middle East and the threat that Israel continues to face from terrorists.”

Some Jewish groups in the United States and Europe welcomed the church’s decision. “I think it is a powerful message,” said Dan Judelson, secretary of European Jews for a Just Peace, which has called for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories. “It shows that people are not prepared to lie down and let the issue rest.”

American Jewish leaders, who thought they had managed through discussions with Protestant denominations to dispose of the idea of divestment, were alarmed to see it revived by the Church of England.

“You could say that it was naïveté on the part of the Presbyterians when they voted like this two years ago,” said Rabbi David Elcott, director of United States interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Congress. “But you can’t say that now, with the election of Hamas and the other changes. The Anglican decision pulls them out of the coalition for peace and puts them on the side of violence.”

Some well-known Anglicans dissented sharply from the decision. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post earlier this week, the former archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. George Carey, called the resolution “a most regrettable and one-sided statement” that ignored “the trauma of ordinary Jewish people” in Israel faced with terrorist attacks.

Correction: February 10, 2006, Friday An article yesterday about a vote by the governing body of the Church of England to divest itself of shares in corporations that it contends support Israel’s activities in Gaza and the West Bank misstated the affiliation of David Elcott, who commented on the development. He is director of United States interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, not the American Jewish Congress.