The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, an Evangelical Christian organization that is unabashedly pro-Israel, last week launched a "counter-disinvestment" campaign in response to the divestment campaign spearheaded by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2004. "In light of the troubling divestment campaign as well as the ongoing rebound in the Israeli economy, our ministry has committed to redoubling its efforts to promote Christian investment in Israel," Malcolm Hedding, ICEJ’s executive director, told reporters last Thursday, during the organization’s annual Feast of Tabernacles conference. Hedding said that his organization, which has members in dozens of countries, is doing "everything possible" to attract Christian businessmen to invest in Israel and to form "reliable partnerships between Christians and their Israeli counterparts. We’re trying to bring together the right people in the right sectors." Although some U.S.-based Protestant Christian churches that considered divesting from companies doing business in Israel have since changed their minds or toned down their rhetoric (and the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has a $7.5 billion investment portfolio, appears to have lost some grassroots support for divestment in recent months) the ICEJ "continues to take the divestment campaign very seriously," Hedding said. "Its full impact has not been felt yet."
That’s because pro-Palestinian NGOs, several of them associated with Palestinian Christians, continue to exert great pressure on churches all over the world to divest from companies such as Motorola and Caterpillar that, in their opinion, aid what they call the "Israeli occupation."
Dozens of representatives from these NGOs routinely attend church conferences, where they introduce anti-Israel proposals and help draft legislation that is often adopted by church officials.
According to NGO Monitor, a watchdog group based in the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, these organizations receive much of their guidance from the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, which is devoted to expanding the Christian divestment movement and discrediting "Christian Zionists."
Earlier this month, during a conference in Chicago, "speakers made allegations of ethnic cleansing against Israel and of employing chemical weapons against Palestinian civilians. The conference served as a platform to promote divestment from Israel," the NGO Monitor noted. Hedding said that the ICEJ is particularly concerned about the NGOs’ impact in Europe, "where the level of anti-Semitism is at an all-time high" since the Second World War, and where anti-Israel activists ìare actively promoting divestment."
Dale Neill, the president of the Belgium-based International Christian Chamber of Commerce, which has representatives in 105 countries, said that economic support for Israel needs to take a new direction. Christians around the world from various denominations already contribute tens of millions of dollars to Israeli and Palestinian institutions and causes ranging from food for the needy and backpacks for school children to airfare and housing for new immigrants, and they also aid these economies through tourism. However, ICEJ’s new campaign isn’t about humanitarian relief or tourist revenue, Neill stressed. "This is about being proactive, about seeing Israel as a business partner on the same level as the United States." To start with, the ICEJ and International Christian Chamber of Commerce plan to go to Tel Aviv for next month’s Prime Ministerís Conference on Trade, in order to publicize their investment campaign and forge ties with Israeli companies.
Investments by Evangelical Christians around the world have been estimated at $6 billion, according to an article in the Jerusalem Post. Already, Hedding said, "we’re working with Israeli start-up companies to help them hook up with the monetary injection they need."
Neill acknowledged that new technology ventures (one of the things in which Israelis excel) "are very risky, so we are setting up a vetting process that will enable us to recommend certain ventures. What are the good stocks, the good companies? Which ones provide high yields?"
Although the speakers declined to identify specific companies and funds, sources familiar with the campaign said they would encourage Christian-owned businesses abroad to outsource some of their services to Israel, which is one of the world leaders in long-distance telemarketing. The fact that Israelis hail from so many parts of the globe and therefore speak dozens of languages fluently has prompted several large companies, including IDT, to turn to Israel.
While the counter-divestment campaign is being fueled by the religious belief that the Jewish State must be helped to flourish, Neill stressed that blind faith is not the answer. Potential investors ìneed to come to Israel and learn exactly what it takes to do business here.
"All too often," Neill said, "Christians have some romantic attachment to the nation and unrealistic expectations."
For an investment to succeed, Neill continued, they will have to find a way to overcome the numerous "barriers" confronting foreign investors.
"It’s very difficult to get established here because there is discrimination against certain Christian organizations when it comes to obtaining permits and residence visas. There is a lot of red tape," he asserted. Although the situation has improved significantly during the past year, Israel’s Interior Ministry remains extremely tight-fisted when it comes to issuing or extending residency visas for non-Jews, including clergy and the support staff in various churches and humanitarian-aid organizations. David Parsons, the ICEJ’s communications director, insisted that the counter-divestment campaign "is not against the Palestinian people. We have 25 years’ worth of commitment to them. At the same time, we need to know that the money [invested] there does not feed the terror chain."
The ICEJ has long encouraged its members to support companies that support Israel "but has no plans to tell people to boycott companies that don’t support Israel," Hedding said. An Evangelical counter-boycott would be counterproductive, according to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who also spoke at the ICEJ press conference. "The goal is to reach the Christian churches, not to boycott certain companies," Cooper said emphatically. "Whatever you can do to normalize ties with Israel, including economic ties, is a very positive thing. We support this initiative."