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Methodists defer key Israeli divestment measure

CHICAGO (Reuters) - United Methodist Church officials on Thursday put aside a proposal that called for the church to divest some of its holdings in companies profiting from Israel’s West Bank occupation.

The proposed measure called on the 8 million-member church -- the third-largest U.S. denomination -- to divest any holdings it had in Caterpillar Inc. by January 1.

The Peoria, Illinois, heavy equipment manufacturer sells bulldozers that the Israeli Army has used to demolish buildings in occupied territories.

About $5 million of the church’s $17 billion pension portfolio is invested in Caterpillar, according to the church.

The Methodist General Board of Church & Society said it would not present the measure at the church’s quadrennial policy-setting General Conference next week in Texas because the dialogue it already sparked with Caterpillar had produced positive results.

Thursday’s decision does not mean that the divestment issue is dead when the Methodists meet in Fort Worth from April 23 to May 2. There are several other proposals, including a broader one stating that the church has $141 million invested in several companies “that enable the occupation to continue” and that should be dumped.

The board said the other proposals still deserve consideration by the meeting.

Caterpillar and the proposal from the General Board of Church & Society, however, had been considered a central measure for the debate, according to Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

The church and society board said “Caterpillar has opened discussions with the board, issued a statement denouncing immoral use of its equipment, and has agreed to continued dialogue,” the board said in a statement.

It said face-to-face discussions beginning in January between the board and Caterpillar executives, including chief executive James Owens, resulted in the company condemning “illegal or immoral use of any Caterpillar equipment.”

Owens is a member of the church.

The divestment concept has been considered off and on by several U.S. churches but none has actually dumped any stock in companies they say are making money by selling products or services to Israel.

The statement from the church and society board said the Presbyterian Church USA and the Roman Catholic Dominican Sisters recently withdrew shareholder resolution on human rights they had planned to present at Caterpillar’s annual meeting.

That action came “in light of its stated expectations that customers will use its products in an environmentally responsible manner and consistent with international humanitarian law and norms,” the board said.

Editing by Andrew Stern