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Jews Target Caterpillar Shareholder Effort

Times Staff Writer

Targeting a Caterpillar Inc. shareholder resolution set for a vote today, many California Jewish leaders are intensely mobilizing against efforts to use stock market pressure as a tool against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

California Jews representing such organizations as the American Jewish Congress and StandWithUs plan to attend a meeting at Caterpillar Inc.'s corporate headquarters in Peoria, Ill., to speak out today against a shareholder resolution that would direct the firm to investigate the use of its bulldozers by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes.

The resolution, brought by four Roman Catholic orders of nuns and the Berkeley-based group Jewish Voices for Peace, says that Israel has used the bulldozers to destroy thousands of homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It asks for an investigation into whether such use conformed with the company’s code of business conduct.

Several Jewish organizations are leading a counter-campaign against the resolution, which they see as part of a broader movement that unfairly singles out Israel for economic pressure without holding Palestinians accountable for terrorism and other actions that have stymied the peace process.

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Although the Caterpillar resolution is not expected to pass, supporters hope to get at least 6% of the vote; that would allow them to reintroduce it next year and continue their advocacy against the demolition of Palestinian homes.

Supporters of the shareholder resolution include two major Protestant denominations, the 3.6-million-member Presbyterian Church USA, and the 8.4-million-member United Methodist Church.

Rallies to oppose the bulldozer sales were scheduled today in 40 U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Chicago, according to Liat Weingart, codirector of Jewish Voices for Peace. “From inside the company, we’re saying this [use] is hurting Caterpillar’s corporate image,” she said.

But Caterpillar spokesman Ben Cordani said the company’s board of directors opposes the resolution because it is impossible to police the use of its equipment worldwide.

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In July, the Presbyterian Church USA became the first American mainline Protestant denomination to vote to begin a process of divestment from U.S. firms that support the occupation as a way, a spokesman said, to put teeth into its 30-year opposition to those Israeli policies.

In recent months, the World Council of Churches has urged Christian churches to consider similar measures, and Episcopalians, Methodists and United Church of Christ members are among those discussing the issue.

Stunned and anguished by the actions, many Jews say divestment from Israel would be counterproductive, rekindling a siege mentality and fears of anti-Semitism at a time of some progress in peacemaking between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

“This is blatant bias against Israel and U.S. firms, and constitutes a political boycott against America’s strongest ally and only democracy in the Mideast,” said Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the American Jewish Congress’ Western regional office in Los Angeles.

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She said she paid $860 for 10 shares of Caterpillar stock so she could speak out against the shareholder resolution today; her organization also bought stock.

StandWithUs, an international Israel advocacy and education organization based in Los Angeles, has urged the 40,000-plus supporters on its e-mail list to buy Caterpillar stock, write letters of support to the firm and invest in companies that do business with Israel.

Other organizations -- including the Union for Reform Judaism, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Progressive Jewish Alliance -- have issued briefing papers, started websites, written newspaper columns, and reached out to Christian churches to discuss divestment issues.

The federation, for instance, recently organized a visit to Israel with Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, to give members of nine Christian and Jewish denominations a better understanding of the Mideast conflict.

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Many of the Jewish efforts were launched last summer after the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly voted, 431 to 62, to direct a church committee to examine the denomination’s $8-billion stock portfolio to identify U.S. firms it thought supported the occupation through their product sales to Israel.

“If we’ve thought the occupation was wrong for 30 years, it would be mutually wrong to have stock in companies that benefit from the occupation,” said church spokesman Barry Creech.

Responding to criticism that divestment could harm peace negotiations in Israel, Creech said that if talks bring an end to the occupation, “then we’ll have nothing to divest from and the problem will take care of itself.”

However, significant numbers of Presbyterians disagree with their General Assembly’s action -- or are unaware of it. An internal church survey last year found that 61% of members were not aware of the action. When told of it, 42% opposed it, 28% favored it and 30% had no opinion.

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Opponents included George Douglas, a member of the Pacific Palisades Presbyterian Church, who argued that the divestment resolution was one-sided.

“Both sides have reasonable demands, but the key to ending the occupation is the elimination of terrorism,” said Douglas, 54, a Pacific Palisades money manager.

A member of the Los Angeles delegation to Israel in February, Douglas said his meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders reinforced his belief that investment in projects to promote peace would be more effective than divestment. He also said like-minded Presbyterians were expected to sponsor a resolution at next year’s General Assembly calling for an end to church divestment activities.

Among other Christian denominations, the 1.4-million-member United Church of Christ plans to announce this month whether a resolution on Israel and divestment will be presented for a vote at its biennial meeting, known as a general synod, scheduled for July in Atlanta.

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Among Methodists, Claremont School of Theology President Philip A. Amerson said his recent visit to Israel with the Los Angeles delegation helped turn his mind more firmly against divestment.

Amerson, an ordained Methodist minister, said that despite Israel’s flaws, the visit underscored for him the need for Palestinians to take steps toward peace by building a vibrant nonviolent movement. He also said he was struck by a “genuine longing” on both sides to end the violence.

“If the [Sharon] government and Palestinian leadership are willing to craft a new peace agreement, those of us in the faith community need not advocate divisiveness,” Amerson said.

Caterpillar’s sales to Israel also recently became the focus of a lawsuit filed by the parents of a young American activist crushed to death two years ago while trying to block the bulldozer demolition of a home in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

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Besides suing the Israeli government in courts there, the parents of Rachel Corrie last month sued Caterpillar Inc. in a Seattle federal court, alleging the firm violated state and international law by selling specially designed bulldozers to the Israeli military, knowing they would be used to demolish homes and endanger civilians.


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