An unholy alliance: Churches apply economic pressure on Israel

Several church denominations in the United States are becoming increasingly active in applying economic pressure on Israel.

January 21, 2017 06:02
Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Lighting a candle at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)

AT SAINT Luke Church in Chicago on the Sunday before Thanksgiving as the organ music and hymn-singing faded away, a minister in a long white robe took to the podium to speak about the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the US. “We are so divided by what happened,” says the minister. “Too often, we choose sides and ignore the one in the middle.”

Though the minister was referring to the increasingly divisive political landscape in the US, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) ‒ of which Saint Luke is a member ‒ might do well to heed his advice.

The ELCA, which has about 4 million members and is, therefore, one of the largest Christian denominations in America, recently took sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict when it passed two resolutions at its churchwide assembly in New Orleans in August that advocated isolating Israel economically as a way of pressuring it to “end the occupation.”

One of the church’s resolutions called on the US government to suspend aid to Israel unless the Jewish state created an independent Palestinian state within its borders. The second tasked a church committee with setting up an “investment screen” that would direct church investments to flow toward Palestinian enterprises rather than Israeli ones.

YET, THE ELCA is not the only US church taking action against Israel with the intention of forging a new reality on the ground.

A number of other large Protestant denominations in America are also voting on resolutions designed to pressure Israel to give up control of the Palestinian territories; they include the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Methodist Church.

These denominations, together comprise millions of people. Their actions may be a signal that the controversial boycottdivestment- sanctions movement is becoming more mainstream in the US ‒ one of Israel’s most devoted allies.

The boycott divestment sanctions campaign, known colloquially as “BDS,” is designed to ostracize Israel internationally by using nonviolent means, such as economic or cultural boycotts. The effort began in 2005 as a Palestinian civil-society initiative to end the occupation and win the right of return for Palestinian refugees. It’s always had broad support among Palestinians, but has struggled to gain acceptance internationally.

Its organizers say it is inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement and is merely aimed at achieving equal rights for Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel.

For years, BDS was popular mostly among left-wing activists in cities or on college campuses in parts of Europe, the UK or the US. Even Jewish groups, such as the Oakland, California-based Jewish Voice for Peace, have endorsed the campaign.

But, as The Economist noted last year, the campaign is “no longer the preserve of crackpots.” In recent years, the drive has gained momentum, with multinational corporations, artists and universities around the world weathering harassment by pro-Palestinian demonstrators for having ties to Israel.

Last month, for example, restaurants in Portugal, Paris and New York that chose to participate in a Tel Aviv food festival were picketed or vandalized by BDS activists.

With little movement happening in official channels to end the feud between Israel and the Palestinians, BDS activists say their work is more important than ever in exerting pressure on Israel to address its now 49-year-long military occupation of the West Bank. The movement often appears to be a noble endeavor, particularly among people who self-identify as progressive.

But a successful BDS campaign would be disastrous for Israel. The movement advocates dismantling the security barrier that Israel has decided is crucial to protect its citizens. The BDS crusade also seeks the “right of return” for five million Palestinian refugees. Statistically speaking, such a prospect would spell the immediate end of Israel as a democratic Jewish state.

Protestant churches in America have been critical of Israel at least as far back as 1967, when Israel first captured the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights. It was then, Emily Soloff of the American Jewish Committee tells The Jerusalem Report, that Protestant churches in the US began to criticize Israel for committing human-rights violations. It was Israel’s victory in 1967 that turned its status, in the eyes of many, from a scrappy new country to a regional superpower.

PROTESTANTS IN America have long cast themselves as champions of the dispossessed.

The Unitarian Universalist church I attended growing up in Massachusetts, for example, used to hold marches against slavery in the streets of my hometown, despite the fact that slavery was abolished in America in 1865. To some extent, the churches’ ongoing interest in the Israel issue comes from this same desire to be on the right side of history.

“Our Presbyterian confessions clearly affirm God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ and the church’s mission of reconciliation as being the heart of the gospel,” declares a 2012 report by the Presbyterian Church (USA) that recommended taking action against the government of Israel in order to help Palestinians create their own country within Israel’s borders. “We are entrusted as ‘ambassadors of Christ’ with this ‘message of reconciliation,’” it continues, quoting from the New Testament.

The Palestinians aren’t the only group for whom the churches are advocating.

Over the years, Protestant denominations in America have been active in other conflicts around the world, from the Philippines and the Congo to Colombia and Haiti.

Several of them are currently campaigning on behalf of Native Americans at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, who are struggling to resist having an oil pipeline laid through their land.

Yet, it’s the Israel-Palestinian conflict that seems to have earned their persistent interest. As early as 1971, officials from the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline Protestant denomination that boasts 1.7 million members, were publicly stating how church investment was not merely a financial instrument but “an instrument of mission” that “include[d] theological, social and economic considerations.”

Beginning in the 1980s, with the outbreak of the first intifada, the pronouncements of US churches on Israel took on an increasingly urgent tone. “This brutal conflict has taken hundreds of Palestinian lives and caused untold suffering,” reads a message on the conflict that was adopted by the ELCA in 1989. “It has also divided the citizens of Israel, as well as the worldwide Jewish community, many of whom are concerned that a continuation of the conflict will... undermine Jewish prophetic values, which are our Christian legacy, as well.”

The ELCA, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other Protestant denominations in the US continued to release statements chiding Israel for its treatment of Palestinians throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

It wasn’t until 2004 that the churches began to move from words toward action.

That year, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) tasked a church committee known as the Mission Responsibility Through Investment to initiate a process of “phased, selective divestment” from any company doing business deemed to be “supporting violence” in Israel or the Palestinian territories.

THAT INITIATIVE was originally written by a group of congregations around Jacksonville, Florida, and passed up through the ranks to the General Assembly, where it was put to a vote, Charles Wiley III, the church’s Coordinator of Theology and Worship, told The Report in a phone interview.

The United Methodist Church was also pursuing a divestment strategy at this time.

It took 10 years for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to move ahead with the committee’s recommendation to divest from companies viewed as facilitating Israel’s occupation. In June of 2014, the church voted to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, companies it claimed were aiding and abetting the occupation by providing hardware, electronic systems and other materials used by the Israel Defense Forces to harass Palestinians in the West Bank or to enforce the blockade of Gaza. The Presbyterian Church (USA) pulled a total of $3 million in investments from the three corporations, Kathy Melvin, communications director for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, tells The Report. The Huffington Post and other outlets have put the figure at $21 million.

US churches also have condemned Palestinian violence. In 2006, for example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) issued a statement about suicide bombers, calling for the planners of such attacks to be brought “to the bar of international justice.”

Denunciations of Palestinian violence, however, are few and far between: the focus is clearly on Israeli, not Palestinian, aggression.

There’s no question that the churches are shining a spotlight on the suffering of one side of a very nuanced conflict while largely ignoring the other. Jewish civilians who are stabbed to death by Palestinians in the streets of Jerusalem or have their houses in Sderot blown up by Kassam rockets are rarely, if ever, mentioned.

When asked about the church’s apparent lack of interest in Palestinian terrorism, Peter Makari, a spokesman for the United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination that traces its origins to Puritan families who settled in Massachusetts in the early 17th century, told The Report that the church “has understood the occupation to be a major cause in the conflict.”

Being balanced isn’t necessarily a priority for the churches. “I think the church, again, is always going to look at human rights violations and peaceful pursuits,” Laurie Anderson, Associate for Interfaith Relations with the Presbyterian Church (USA), tells The Report. “And that is not indicative of being balanced itself.”

Jewish groups have taken issue with the churches’ portrayal of Israel as the conflict’s primary belligerent. Shortly before the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 2014 divestment vote, for example, a group of more than 1,700 US rabbis published an open letter to Presbyterians that said “oversimplifying a complex conflict and placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility, increases conflict and division instead of promoting peace.”

But the wagon was already moving, and other churches had begun climbing aboard.

In 2012, the Friends Fiduciary Corporation, a socially responsible investment organization for 250 Quaker groups, pulled more than $1 million from several companies that it said were complicit in human rights violations in Israel-Palestine, including Hewlett-Packard and the utility company Veolia Environment.

In 2013, the Mennonite Central Committee, a nonprofit organization, decided to not “knowingly invest in companies that benefit from products or services used to perpetrate acts of violence against Palestinians [and] Israelis.”

The following year, the pension board of the United Methodist Church, a seven million member Protestant denomination, decided to sell a small amount of stock in G4S, a security company, because G4S held contracts with Israeli prisons.

In 2015, the United Church of Christ took things a step further. Not only did the church overwhelmingly pass a measure calling for boycotting companies that are “complicit in the Israeli occupation,” it voted on a measure that would have labeled Israel’s actions toward Palestinians “apartheid.” The measure garnered 51 percent of the vote, falling short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. But church spokesman Peter Makari tells The Report it could be put forward again at a future assembly.

When it comes to US churches passing BDS-style resolutions, there appears to be an element of peer pressure at play.

“With the adoption of this resolution, the Thirtieth General Synod of the United Church of Christ will secure its rightful place alongside other denominations and peace-seeking groups in the United States and around the world that are taking a public stand against the occupation,” reads the United Church of Christ’s 2015 divestment resolution. “Most of the mainline denominations in the US have been considering resolutions that call for some form of boycott and/or divestment.”

Indeed, the language used in the churches’ resolutions to isolate Israel is strikingly similar. “They are all boilerplate resolutions that are circulating,” said Soloff, who has advised a number of US churches on the dangers of BDS.

IN INTERVIEWS with the churches themselves, I notice again and again how careful they are to avoid using the words “boycott,” “divest” or “sanction.” Makari, the spokesman for the United Church of Christ, tells The Report that the church is not supporting the BDS campaign outright. “I call our resolution ‘lowercase bds,’ because it’s maybe a part of the overall picture, but it’s not a blanket endorsement,” he says, noting that the church has not taken a position on the “right of return,” which is a pillar of the BDS campaign.

The churches appear to be aware that BDS is a kind of “third-rail” issue, and that even touching it could lead to some very negative publicity.

The ELCA, for example, would not consent to an interview for any article that associated them with BDS, even though I offered to travel to their Chicago headquarters to do it. ELCA spokesperson Candice Buchbinder said that it was because the church had not joined the BDS movement. “While the reference to [investing in] ‘under-resourced areas’ [in Israel-Palestine] is somewhat ambiguous, the resolution offers no comment against investment in Israel,” she said. Of course, she’s right: The ELCA’s directive to boycott Israel may not use the words “boycott,” “divest” or “sanction,” but its meaning is no less clear for having omitted those words.

The end result of some of the churches’ resolutions, Soloff says, may be more damaging to Israel than they seem at first glance. In June 2016, for example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) commissioned a report examining the possibility of a two-state solution “and other possible alternatives.”

That report, titled “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace,” questions whether a two-state solution is still possible, given the proliferation of settlements in the West Bank. Soloff calls the 56-page report “very pernicious” because, while it doesn’t explicitly state that the possibility of a two-state solution is dead, it directs all its rhetoric toward that conclusion.

“This is all part of a massive rhetorical effort to change people’s thinking, and view, of the possibility of a separate Palestinian state, with the logical next step being a binational state where Jews are a minority. In other words, the dismantling of Israel,” she says.

So where is all this coming from? Soloff says it is a minority of church members who are pushing to boycott Israel, and that 75-90 percent of the recent church resolutions are being driven by Palestinian Christians. Both Makari from the United Church of Christ and Wiley from the Presbyterian Church (USA) conceded that their churches’ relationships with Palestinian Christians was a central component of the decisions to pressure Israel to hand over land to Palestinians.

In reviewing the documents, reports and resolutions published in recent years by the various US churches taking part in the BDS movement, a report called “the Kairos Palestine Document” comes up again and again. That document, which was first released in Bethlehem in 2009, is the origin of Christian churches’ recent engagement with the BDS movement against Israel, says Soloff. The Kairos document is linked to the websites of the ELCA, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and others.

The document says that it intends to be “the Christian Palestinians’ word to the world about what is happening in Palestine.”

It says that Israeli settlements “ravage our land in the name of God and in the name of force” and advocates for the return of Palestinian refugees and the release of Palestinian inmates from Israeli prisons.

It does not specifically call for a two-state solution.

The document was written by a group of 15 Palestinian Christians representing a number of different Christian denominations.

Many of the authors are declared Palestinian nationalists.

After the service at Saint Luke Church in Chicago, as a crisp fall wind sent dead leaves scraping across the sidewalk, I spoke to half a dozen worshippers as they left the church and headed to their cars. None of them were aware of the ELCA’s position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“Unfortunately I’m overly ignorant,” one woman said. “I’ll have to look it up when I get home!” said another, unlocking her bicycle from a lamp post and cycling off into the distance.

Perhaps their lack of knowledge on the issue isn’t so surprising. What happens in Israel doesn’t materially affect the lives of most American Christians in the Midwest.

But it’s precisely their lack of caring about the issue that allows the much bigger organizations that run their churches to defer to the passions of those who do.

“People who aren’t conversant on a specific issue will defer to those in the denomination who are,” Soloff explains. “They give a lot of credence to experts, as we all do. It’s a very human thing.”

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