Churches Might Be Hurt by New York State No Longer Doing Business with Participants in the BDS Movement

(Corrections appended.)

As Thought Front has discussed before, economic boycotts are a controversial but popular practice to protest government policies, be it North Carolina, Iran, South Africa, or Israel. The effectiveness is not entirely clear, and a common criticism is that it hurts the most vulnerable in a society much more than the ruling class. For example, boycotting Israel-based SodaStream due to the country’s treatment of Palestinians might ultimately do more to harm Palestinians working in its factory than to persuade Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nevertheless, the BDS Movement (standing for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) against Israel has gained momentum as a way to protest the treatment of Palestinians. Some criticize the movement as anti-Semitic. As Thought Front discussed, less attention is paid to the greater numbers of Muslims suffering in Sudan, Syria, and Burma. For that matter, a focus on Israel divestment might raise the question of whether there are other criteria of businesses that merit boycotts, perhaps moreso than involvement in Israel. After all, so many products are produced by slave labor or close to it, even within the US, thanks to prison labor. Defenders of Israel might argue that the greater scrutiny is rooted in anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, efforts have been taken by Israel and its allies to blunt the momentum of BDS.

The latest salvo occurred Sunday, when New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order No. 157 declaring that the state would no longer do business with companies participating in the BDS Movement.

The order takes effect immediately, although it gives the state six months to identify which companies are involved in the BDS Movement.

However, what organizations would ultimately be affected?

The participants in the BDS Movement are not entirely clear, as there appears not to be a definitive list, and there are far more community organizations involved than corporations. And at times, the question of agency might be fuzzy: after pressure and contracts lost due to the movement, both security contractor G4S and waste/water/transport management company Veolia sold off all holdings in Israel.

So do G4S and Veolia, which both have contracts with New York State, count as “part” of BDS for divesting? Perhaps not, although a similar initiative by the state of Illinois concluded G4S is.

And even then one must rely mostly on conjecture: both G4S and Veolia companies insisted it was purely for financial reasons and unrelated to BDS activity.

Thought Front reviewed New York State contracts via the Open Book New York databases on the state comptroller’s website. To the chagrin of Thought Front, the Open Book database of state contracts does not actually provide details of the purpose for most state contracts. The Comptroller’s Office assures, “We will add this enhancement to State Payments in the future.”

After analysis, what is surprising is that some of those who might be hit hardest by Cuomo’s executive action might be houses of worship.

How so?

Well, one entity that could be hit is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which in 2014 voted to divest holdings in three companies that do business with the Israeli government: Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard, and Caterpillar. Critics argue the companies are unjustly profiting by abetting Israel’s occupation of territories.

The church resolution stated the decision was not an endorsement of the BDS Movement, and it added that it would seek investments in “Israel-Palestine that advance peace and improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis.”

But what if the State of New York thinks differently? Given that the executive order says the state will not do business with “institutions and companies…either directly or through a parent or subsidiary,” then arguably that would mean ending any state grants to a number of organizations under the church’s auspices. That includes churches as well as health centers, among them the organization operating Seniorsfirst elderly care centers. Likely this was not an intended target of Cuomo’s executive order.

Based on data from the Comptroller’s office, Thought Front identified 119 payments since 2015 from the state to organizations that appear to be affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The grants come out to just over $240,000, mostly doled out in amounts of a few thousand, presumably for community programs.

The payees were Brighton Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr Park Presbyterian Church Inc, Eastchester Presbyterian Church, First Chinese Presbyterian Community, First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, Genesee Valley Presbyterian Nursing, Lakeside Presbyterian Church, Penfield Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Home for Central New York, Presbyterian Residential Community Inc, Presbyterian Senior Care of WNY Inc, Rochester Presbyterian Home, Bath Presbyterian Congregation, and Westminster Presbyterian Society.

Another contract recipient is listed with the truncated name of “First Presbyterian Church & Society of.” Thought Front contacted the Office of the Comptroller to clarify to what entity this refers.

In addition, Governor Cuomo’s own polling place in 2014 was the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco.

(New York–Presbyterian Hospital does not appear to have any affiliation at this time with the Presbyterian Church.)

In fact it is not the only church organization to strategically divest. The United Methodist Church pension fund has also divested from Israeli companies, including five banks, based on a conclusion that it is immoral to invest in companies that profit from activity in occupied territory. The church also encouraged international sanctions to that effect. The fund continues to invest in other Israeli companies.

A pro-divestment group within the church, United Methodist Kairos Response, found the move encouraging, in part because despite the church’s position that its divestment is based on narrow criteria, nevertheless divesting from banks seems more far-reaching than the stated criteria. Kairos said it would continue to push for further sanctions.

Meanwhile, New York State currently has three contracts with institutions that appear to be affiliated with the Methodist church: a $50,000 contract with Harvest Chapel Free Methodist Church to provide hospitality services for the Department of Corrections; a $420,000 grant to the Springfield Gardens Methodist Church Community Service Agency to provide alcohol and substance abuse treatment; and a $1 million lease with the United Methodist Church of Peekskill through the Rockland Psychiatric Center.

In terms of payments to affiliates to Methodist Church affiliates, since 2015 there were 273 totaling over $1.3 million, in a manner similar to that of the Presbyterian institutions.

Other Methodist payees that could be affected would be Brewerton United Methodist Church, Brooklyn Methodist Church Home, Chinese Methodist Center Corp, Churchill Memorial United Methodist, Christ United Methodist Church, Commack Methodist Church, Epworth United Methodist Church, First Methodist Church of Campville, Geneseo United Methodist Church, Mckownville United Methodist Church, Methodist Church of Monticello, New York Civil Society of the Methodist, Pearce Memorial Free Methodist Church, Mckownville United Methodist Church, Poughkeepsie United Methodist Church, Salem United Methodist Church, Shenendehowa Methodist Church, Smithtown United Methodist Church, Southern Methodist University, St James United Methodist Church, Tremont United Methodist Church, United Methodist Church of Wappingers, Valley Chapel Free Methodist Church, and Verbank Methodist Church.

The United Methodist Church did not respond to a request for comment.

Still another religious institution that divested from Israel is the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), which since last year had eight contracts with the State University of New York System totaling $8,215. The purpose of the contracts is not clear.

UUA did not respond to a request for comment.

The United Church of Christ also passed a non-binding resolution in 2015 calling for divestment and boycotting of businesses profiting from activity in occupied territory.

According to state data, the St. Johns United Church of Christ and St. James United Church of Christ since 2015 have each received 17 payments from the state, totaling over $58,000.

Ultimately, the counter-boycott of BDS by New York State might ultimately turn into a strong example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, along the lines of those critics claim occur with divestment.

Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Thought Front is continuing to investigate the companies that would be affected by Cuomo’s executive order.

Corrections

An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) divested from all Israeli business. In fact it divested from three America-based companies doing business in Israel. The article was also updated to clarify that the church does not endorse the BDS Movement.

A previous version also stated that Illinois determined both G4S and Veolia to be engaged in the BDS Movement. In fact the state only considered G4S to be involved, based on conjecture.

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