FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS) - Would divestment from companies connected to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land help bring about change in the Middle East?

United Methodist speakers explored that question during a Jan. 25 panel discussion on "Divestment, the Middle East and Sudan" during the Pre-General Conference News Briefing sponsored by United Methodist Communications.

The Rev. Steve Sprecher, a director of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, called divestment "a time-honored policy" within The United Methodist Church.

Sprecher was part of the committee of the General Board of Church and Society that led the social action agency to send a petition to General Conference recommending divestment from Caterpillar Inc., the heavy-equipment manufacturer based in Peoria, Ill., with a plant in Lafayette, Ind. and other plants in the United States and other countries. The petition charges that the company profits from illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and contributes to the occupation by supplying Israeli Defense Forces with heavy equipment.

About $5 million of the denomination's estimated $17 billion pension portfolio is invested in Caterpillar stock.

He stressed that the action against Caterpillar is proposed because the company's bulldozers and other equipment are being used to clear Palestinian land, destroy Palestinian homes and olive groves and help erect the "wall of separation," some of which is on Palestinian land.

The Rev. W. Douglas Mills, an executive with the United Methodist General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, noted that divestment is not such a simple solution and could have a negative impact for a denomination that places a high value on Christian-Jewish relations, the horror of the Holocaust and the quest for peace in the Middle East.

Mills said he likes processes that foster dialogue and is "a big fan of shareholder advocacy."

Dave Zellner, chief investment officer with the United Methodist General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, noted that his agency is recognized as "the leader among denominations" on investor advocacy. He called for advocacy, rather than divestment, with Caterpillar. "With our partners, we are very effective in making change."

A position paper issued by the pension board on investments in companies doing business with Israel states that the agency "views divestment as a policy of last resort."

The Rev. Timothy Bias, a General Conference delegate and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Peoria, where 70 percent of the membership has employment ties to Caterpillar, questioned Sprecher on whether directors or staff from Church and Society had spoken directly with Caterpillar executives before passing their proposed resolution.

Sprecher acknowledged they had not, although Jim Winkler, Church and Society's chief executive, recently met with Jim Owens, chairman of Caterpillar, who also is a United Methodist.

Bias noted that delegates to General Conference are being urged to engage in "holy conferencing" on divisive issues and questioned why the board did not engage in the same practice of dialogue and listening with representatives from Caterpillar. "It just seems to me that we would serve ourselves much better . if we would have conversations before we pass resolutions," he said.

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