Three more U.S. churches to consider ending financial support for Israeli occupation

Faith in the peace process is at an all-time low after the re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the extremism of his new government. With even President Obama admitting that the door on negotiations is all but closed, Christian activists are opening new windows to expose Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

“Understanding Netanyahu’s intent and policy is not guess work at all, it is consistent with the historical record for any who bother to look,” said Rev. Dr. Jeffrey DeYoe, moderator of the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). “Talk of a two-state solution, even with Netanyahu resurrecting that language after being elected, is a cynical delaying tactic.”

“Netanyahu is going to cost us Palestinians a tremendous amount of suffering, and more atrocities and policies of oppression,” said Bisan Mitri of the West Bank town of Beit Sahour. “But this also means that the mask has been dropped.”

Mitri is one of 3,000 Palestinian Christians, including the heads of 13 churches, who signed the Kairos Palestine document calling for: “boycott and disinvestment as tools of nonviolence for justice, peace and security for all.”

Last year, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and United Methodist Church (UMC) divested from several U.S. companies involved in the occupation. Various Quaker bodies have done the same.

“Negotiations are not productive and other avenues must be tried,” said a statement by the United Methodist Kairos Response, a grassroots group within the UMC.  “The avenues recommended by our own faith community in the Holy Land, the Palestinian Christians, include boycott and divestment as well as sanctions.”

This June, three more U.S. churches—the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA)—will join the growing list of those listening to the Kairos Palestine call and considering resolutions to end financial support for the occupation.

What they do and don’t say

As awareness—and misinformation—about BDS proliferate, these church resolutions have been carefully crafted to articulate their respective strategies.

“The Church must discern its appropriate form of BDS in accordance with its values of nonviolence and commitment to justice and in light of its shared complicity in the ongoing Occupation,” states the introduction to the Episcopal resolution. “For the Episcopal Church, BDS is ultimately a strategy to impose pressure on corporate decision-makers aimed at ending the Occupation.”

To that end, their resolution mandates an annually updated list of corporations that “support the infrastructure of Israel’s Occupation.” A phase of “corporate engagement” including shareholder resolutions would be followed by divestment from companies that refuse to change course. Such companies would then be placed on a “No Buy List” with other companies that support the occupation. It also includes measures to boycott settlement “products and/or businesses which are illegal under international law.”

In the background to its resolution, the UCC Palestine Israel Network (UCCPIN) lists the three demands of the Palestinian civil society BDS call: “End to the occupation; equality for Palestinians now living in Israel; and recognition of Palestinian refugees’ right of return,” emphasizing that, “UCCPIN chooses to focus particularly on the first of these goals believing that an end to the occupation is an essential ingredient for a just peace.”

According to Rev. Diane Dulin of UCCPIN, their resolution includes “boycotting settlement products, divesting from the worst offenders who support the occupation, urging church-wide study of Kairos Palestine, seeking congressional review of possibly illegal U.S. military assistance, and continuing interfaith dialogue.”

The UCCPIN specifically calls for divestment from Caterpillar, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, G4S, and Veolia, and mandates “developing and publishing standards by which faith-driven investment, divestment, and re-investment decisions can be made in the future.”

The MCUSA resolution does not directly reference BDS or name specific companies but instead calls for annual review of church investments “for the purpose of withdrawing investments from corporations known to be profiting from the occupation and/or destruction of life and property in Israel-Palestine.” It further calls for “individuals and congregations to avoid the purchase of products that enable the military occupation to continue, including items produced in Israeli settlements.”

While remaining clear in their criticism of the Israeli government, each of these church resolutions and their supporting documents confess the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism and affirm the need for ongoing dialogue with the Jewish community.

Chance of success

“The resolution is founded on our biblical call as followers of Christ to be peacemakers, to care for the well-being of all God’s children, and especially those who are victims of violence, oppression, and injustice,” said Tom Harder of the Mennonite Palestine Israel Network (MennoPIN). “Helping delegates come to a more informed understanding of the conflict will be key to the resolution’s passing.”

Because MennoPIN’s resolution was crafted in consultation with a broad cross-section of church leaders and agencies, it enjoys significant institutional support. A series of “Come and See” tours sponsored by MCUSA and its humanitarian agency, Mennonite Central Committee, have given key denominational leaders a firsthand understanding of the occupation.

Dulin also points to positive signs for the UCC resolution: “It is still impossible to know if we will win the two-thirds majority we need, but we do know the resolution has passed handily in each regional conference in which it has been considered.”

After last summer’s attacks on Gaza and Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric, Donna Hicks, convener of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Palestine Israel Network, senses greater concern with Israeli policy among a wider range of Episcopalians. Speaking in a personal capacity, she gave a more guarded assessment: “Whether this will be enough to effect passage of resolutions dealing with divestment is hard to say.”

Based on the PCUSA’s narrow victory last year, IPMN Communications Chair Robert Trawick offered this strategic assessment: “The issue of Jewish/Presbyterian relations in the United States was cited more often than not as the reason for rejecting divestment. The only way I see any significant movement happening from the bulk of the anti-divestment forces would be if large numbers of mainstream Jewish organizations began to speak out more forcefully against Israeli policy and to open up the possibility of divestment as an accepted strategy.”

Moral support

So far, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) is the only major Jewish organization actively supporting these efforts, and is sending staff to both the UCC and Episcopal gatherings. The American Friends Service Committee, Friends of Sabeel North America, Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace, and the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, are also actively supporting church divestment efforts.

“The events of the last year,” said JVP’s Naomi Dann, “including Israel’s brutal attack on Gaza, the collapse of the peace process and the increasingly blatant racism in Israel and opposition to a Palestinian state, have prompted growing numbers of progressive Jews to conclude that the status quo is unsustainable and to join Jewish Voice for Peace in our conviction that outside pressure, through tactics like boycott and divestment, is needed in order to make change happen.”

In his endorsement of the Episcopal resolution, Archbishop Desmond Tutu issues an affirmation and challenge that should inspire all such efforts:

You proved with us in South Africa that only economic pressure could force the powerful to the table. May you once again witness to the cause of Christ’s justice to free the oppressed and by so doing to liberate the oppressor so that these two peoples can finally be reconciled and live together in dignity, security and peace.

Netanyahu recently ratched up his anti-BDS rhetoric, declaring

The absurd drama in which the democracy that observes human rights – the state of Israel – and which defends itself from barrages of missiles and terrorist tunnels, and then absorbs automatic condemnations and attempted boycotts, this absurd drama will not be forgiven.

While it’s not hard to say which man’s words are a greater inspiration to church-based activists, both should energize those seeking a just peace in the Holy Land.

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