As governments clamp down on BDS, grassroots church activists rise up
Israel’s high court recently upheld a law making boycotts of Israeli businesses a civil crime. Within weeks, US Congress introduced a trade measure to “discourage politically motivated actions to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel”. Now the Illinois state legislature has voted to withdraw state funds from companies boycotting Israel.
But despite attempts to curtail the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that is putting pressure on Israel, grassroots efforts including those by US churches are gaining momentum. With faith in the official peace process flagging, these Christian activists are choosing to ignore the politicians and pursue BDS tactics.
“My faith calls me to amplify the voices of the oppressed and seek justice along side them,” said Angelica Harter, chair of the United Church of Christ Palestine Israel Network (UCC PIN).
Bisan Mitri, of the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, 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”.
“The churches that are pro-human rights," says Mitri, "have a big role to play to promote BDS as a nonviolent tool to isolate Israel internationally until it complies with international law."
For Harter of the UCC PIN, that document was a powerful rallying call. “I seek to respond to the cry of the Kairos Palestine document to hear the suffering of all Palestinians.”
To date, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), United Methodist Church (UMC) and several Quaker bodies have approved divestment actions. This month, the UCC, the Episcopal Church, and the Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) will each consider new resolutions concerning economic activism.
According to Mike Merryman-Lotze of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker agency that supports divestment, concern about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government could “provide support for the pro-divestment groups working within the churches, and will make it harder for opponents to say that churches must wait for negotiations.”
“Israel’s attacks on Gaza last summer and Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric this March have raised concerns about Israeli government policies among a wider range of people in the Episcopal Church,” said Donna Hicks, convener of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Palestine Israel Network (EPF PIN), speaking in a personal capacity.
According to Tom Harder of the Mennonite Palestine Israel Network (MennoPIN), “Come and See” tours of Palestine and Israel sponsored by church agencies give a diverse array of key denominational and congregational leaders “a more complete understanding of the conflict, and the ways in which the Bible has been used to perpetuate it".
Reverend Emily Goldthwaite-Fries pastors a church in Minnesota, and joined UCC PIN after a year of living in Jerusalem.
“Since returning home, I have again and again been moved by the openness to our story,” says Goldthwaite-Fries. “I have lived in some of the most conservative parts of the country, but across the board there is a suspicion - especially after the shocking assault on Gaza last summer - that people are not getting the whole truth from the media.”
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From awareness to action
Transforming awareness into action has been challenging for churches. Opponents of divestment have often urged dialogue instead of confrontation. In the midst of the PCUSA debate a year ago, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, offered church leaders a private meeting with Netanyahu in exchange for a “no” vote.
At that time, Reverend Susan Andrews, former head of the denomination, said that the opportunity “to sit in the office of the Prime Minister of Israel and speak truth to power” would be a “game changer.” Instead, the church voted in favour of divestment 310 to 303.
“Perhaps those who still believed that Netanyahu could be a peacemaker will now see that we cannot wait for the Israeli Prime Minister to decide when, whether, and how much Palestinians should enjoy their full set of God-given human rights,” said Bob Ross, advocacy chair of the PCUSA’s Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN).
The PCUSA’s resolution last June targeted three US corporations (Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar) involved in the Israeli occupation. Though Methodists rejected a similar resolution in 2012, the church last year divested from the security firm G4S over its occupation activities.
This year’s UCC resolution also names specific companies, while the Episcopal and Mennonite resolutions mandate processes to identify companies complicit in the occupation.
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Each of these resolutions, to varying degrees, also affirms Israel’s right to exist, denounces anti-Semitism and stresses the need for interfaith dialogue. Nonetheless, promoters of this June’s resolutions anticipate facing the same criticism from major Jewish groups as that which followed the PCUSA’s vote.
“Judging by what has happened at the national gatherings of other denominational bodies, there will be opposition from both within and outside the church,” said Harter.
Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee, said last year that decisions by churches to join the BDS movement harmed interfaith relations.
“It is a very sad day for Presbyterian-Jewish relations when church leaders from across the US align with the international [BDS] movement. The PCUSA decision is celebrated by those who believe they are one step closer to a Jew-free Middle East.”
Concern over the potential impact of any boycott decisions on community relations does cause significant divisions within church groups, according to Robert Trawick, communications chair at IPMN.
“The primary motivating factor behind resistance to divestment within the church continues to be its impact on relations with our Jewish neighbours. They are, by and large, well-meaning liberals committed to interfaith dialogue and comity, and they dread, above all else, being labeled anti-Semitic.”
Yet some of the strongest voices supporting BDS efforts are Jewish. Yonatan Shapira, a former Israeli Air Force helicopter pilot turned solidarity activist, is a member of Boycott from Within, a movement of Israeli BDS supporters.
“I want to offer my support to include these tools in the work different churches are doing,” says Shapira. “Although we are a minority of a minority, we are still hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. Some people would call it a ‘Jewish shield’ against all the accusations."
“Churches have long been leaders in advocating peace with justice and taking a principled stand in opposition to the occupation,” said Naomi Dann of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Her organisation was instrumental in promoting the PCUSA’s resolution last year, and will do advocacy work at the UCC and Episcopal conventions this June. “Divestment from companies that are complicit in human rights abuses being committed against Palestinians is the next step in this process. JVP supports the efforts of church leaders to follow their conscience in taking this step.”
Zionist Christian groups have offered some of the harshest criticism of moves to promote BDS tactics within churches.
“The people promoting BDS are Israel-haters who are trying to treat Israel like apartheid South Africa,” stated Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest Zionist organisation of any kind in the US. It has promoted a “buycott” of Israeli products to protest what it calls “the latest effort to attack the Jewish people and delegitimise the Jewish State.”
While mainstream Protestant denominations carry significant moral weight in the US - the Episcopal resolution was endorsed by Archbishop Demond Tutu - groups like CUFI wield their conservative evangelical base as a well-organised and powerful political force. And though a growing number of evangelicals are becoming aware of the Palestinian plight, BDS remains beyond the pale for most.
“When interviewing Evangelical [Christians] who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, [I have found that] many people distance themselves from the BDS movement,” said Dale Hanson Bourke, author of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers. “Some see it as too negative and punitive - instead of being pro-Palestinian [they see it as] anti-Israel.”
Even among the churches taking economic measures, no resolution has yet fully endorsed BDS. The PCUSA’s resolution explicitly stated that it did not “constitute endorsement” of the global BDS movement.
While activists can engage with BDS at various levels, and have done so, the official Palestinian Civil Society's Call for BDS includes three demands: an end to the occupation of 1967, full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and “the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”
US churches have thus far carefully focused their divestment efforts on the occupation. Their boycotts target only Israeli settlements, which are considered illegal under international law. Palestinian partners have welcomed these efforts, but encourage full BDS as well.
“The boycott is open on any level that you want,” said Nora Carmi of Kairos Palestine. “We ask for the boycott of Israel and not just the settlements. The settlements are the product of the state of Israel: they didn't come out of nowhere.”
Palestinian partners, though, say that the worst possible outcome would be for churches to take no action at all.
“The problem with the churches, in my opinion, is that throughout history, they have mostly been latecomers about facing injustice. The examples are countless,” said Mitri. “Now, with the re-election of Netanyahu and the clearer vision of how racist and extreme Israeli society and state have both become, churches will have to take a moral and ethical stand when it comes to the issue of Palestine."