The week before three U.S. churches will consider resolutions to apply financial pressure against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared such efforts to “the defamation of the Jewish people [that] happened when the Nazis controlled Europe.”
“We will continue to resist boycotts, defamations, de-legitimization,” said Netanyahu. “What was done to the Jewish people then is being done to the Jewish state now.”
Just two days later, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu issued a sharply contrasting endorsement of “nonviolent tools of economic leverage” as a means for ending “Israel’s decades long oppression of Palestine.”
Listing the “illegal occupation; the expanding West Bank settlements; the separation wall; the siege of Gaza,” and other injustices, Tutu declared, “We condemn the brutality of Israel’s policies. But we do not condemn Judaism or Jews.”
Whether one embraces Netanyahu’s view or Tutu’s one thing is clear: With the failure of peace talks, last summer’s bloodshed in Gaza, and President Barack Obama’s frustration with Israel’s new hardline government, there is new openness to the global movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as one of the few remaining tactics to pressure Israel to comply with international law. Beginning this week, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) will each debate whether they will take part in such actions.
Since Zionist Christians have long been a bulwark of U.S. support for Israeli policies, BDS efforts within churches face particular challenges and controversy. Christians United for Israel, the largest Zionist organization of any kind in the U.S., recently sent representatives to a Las Vegas fundraiser held by Republican super-donor Sheldon Adelson and Hillary Clinton supporter Haim Saban.
“Israel is not apartheid. Israel is the victim,” said CUFI’s Dumisani Washington at the closed-door confab, which raised a reported $50 million for anti-BDS efforts.
Meanwhile, grassroots activists like Angelical Harter, chair of the United Church of Christ Palestine Israel Network (UCC PIN), are trying to challenge popular narratives.
“Our media do not tell the whole story,” said Harter. “The conflict is not one of equals.”
In comparison to Adelson and Saban’s level of political influence and financial resources, the actions taken by churches are modest but carry significant symbolic weight. One year ago, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) passed a resolution to divest from three U.S. corporations: Hewlett-Packard , Caterpillar and Motorola — all of which supply equipment used by the Israeli military in its occupation of Palestinian territory. The same year, the United Methodist Church pension board divested from security firm G4S for its role in Israeli prisons operating in the West Bank. Several Quaker bodies have taken divestment actions as well.
“While BDS may be hard for some foreign audiences to understand or adopt,” says Rifat Kassis, a Palestinian Christian from the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, “It is the only methodology we see right now to bring about a just peace in a nonviolent way.”
Kassis is the coordinator of Kairos Palestine, an organization promoting the declaration signed by some 3,000 Palestinian Christians, including the heads of 13 Palestinian churches, which calls for: “boycott and disinvestment as tools of nonviolence for justice, peace and security for all.”
According to Robert Trawick, communications chair of the PCUSA’s Israel Palestine Mission Network, “The justice or lack thereof in the policies of any Israeli government remain a secondary concern” to divestment critics within the church. According to Trawick, opponents tend to be “well-meaning liberals” who dread being labeled anti-Semitic.
“The PCUSA decision is celebrated by those who believe they are one step closer to a Jew-free Middle East,” said Rabbi Noam Marans of the American Jewish Committee in a statement following the divestment vote.
Anticipating a similar backlash this year, the UCC resolution endorsed by Tutu affirms “Israel’s right to exist within secure and internationally recognized boundaries,” renounces the “sin of anti-Semitism,” and calls for “continuing to dialogue with major Jewish organizations.”
All three church resolutions contain similar language in order to make clear that, as the Mennonite resolution’s preamble states, “When addressing the injustice of the current Israeli occupation of Palestine, it is critical that we speak about the policies of the Israeli government and not identify or equate the Jewish people with that government.”
At the same time, Jewish activists are among those on the forefront of BDS activism.
“We know that the peace process has not been working,” said Sydney Levy, advocacy director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). “We know that the Netanyahu government is not interested in a two-state solution. So the question is, under those circumstances, what can you do?”
JVP has grown to more than 60 chapters across the country as the only major Jewish organization that supports BDS. Having been instrumental in supporting the PCUSA resolution, JVP will be sending Levy and other staff to the UCC and Episcopal Church conferences.
“The answer is not with governments,” said Levy. “This is a wakeup call that the time to take action is now. That’s what we are telling churches.”
The UCCPIN resolution’s background document cites 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.”
But as with the other churches’ resolutions, “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.” Each of the church resolutions calls for a targeted boycott of settlement products, as all Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are widely considered illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Regarding divestment, the resolutions differ somewhat in their details. The UCC measure names several corporations involved in the occupation (HP, Motorola, Caterpillar, G4S and Veolia), while the Episcopal and Mennonite resolutions define processes by which companies complicit in the occupation would be identified and screened on an ongoing basis.
Church activists are guardedly optimistic about their respective resolutions’ chances of passage. Episcopal activists note, however, that the head of the U.S. church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, has preferred a less confrontational approach that emphasizes dialogue and reconciliation. The Mennonite resolution was drafted with the engagement of key leaders in the church and its agencies, ensuring firm institutional support. The UCC resolution benefits from the momentum of having already been approved by several regional conferences.
“Whether or not this resolution passes,” said Harter, “there is much work to be done on the local and regional level to carry out its ‘calls,’ particularly in the conferences and local churches which have endorsed it.”
This work includes “encouragement of boycotts and the examination of investment portfolios,” according to Harter, and “pressure which we all need to bring on our elected officials.”
For Palestinians and Israelis who daily face the consequences of the status quo, the urgency for action has never been greater.
“Every time there is another round of attacks on Gaza and Palestine, there are more people, more children who are hurt and killed,” said Yonatan Shapira, a former Israeli Air Force pilot turned solidarity activist. He is now a member of Boycott from Within, a network of Israeli BDS supporters.
In a meeting with church leaders, he pleaded, “I really want you to think about what will make it so you can’t hold anymore this resistance to this kind of struggle of international boycott. How many people need to be killed?”