On May 2, 2012, the United Methodist Church held their annual General Assembly in Tampa, Florida, where they voted on the issue of divestment from the State of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians by boycotting companies such as Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola, who profit from the Israeli Occupation. The New York Times reported that:
“After an afternoon of impassioned debate and several votes, the delegates overwhelmingly passed a more neutral resolution calling for ‘positive’ investment to encourage economic development ‘in Palestine.’
“However, the Methodists also passed a strongly worded resolution denouncing the Israeli occupation and the settlements, and calling for ‘all nations to prohibit the import of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.’”
Susanne Hoder, a Methodist from Rhode Island and a spokeswoman for a group for divestment, the United Methodist Kairos Response said that even though at the General Assembly, divestment was defeated by a 2-to-1 ratio in two separate votes, four geographic regions of the Methodist Church — Northern Illinois, California Pacific, New York and West Ohio — had already voted to pull out their own investments. “We expect that more United Methodist conferences will do this,” she said.
The Presbyterian Church USA will also hold a similar vote at their upcoming conference in June. In 2004, the Presbyterians voted for divestment but voted against it at their next general assembly two years later.
Many are disappointed and frustrated by such wishy-washy positions and watering down of perfectly reasonable, non-violent approaches to defeating injustice, resulting in statements of support without any meaningful action towards supporting justice.
Sadly and predictably, 2 out of 3 Methodists succumbed to the twisted logic of 1,200 rabbis accusing them of “singling out” Israel for criticism, warning that supporting divestment would “damage the relationship between Jews and Christians.” This overused lobbying tactic nearly always triggers instant shame and self-questioning in White Christians, for cultural reasons that have long passed their time of relevancy.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa responded strongly to the pro-Israel rabbis’ tainting of the divestment efforts in an article published in the Tampa Bay Times:
“While they are no doubt well-meaning, I believe that the rabbis and other opponents of divestment are sadly misguided. My voice will always be raised in support of Christian-Jewish ties and against the anti-Semitism that all sensible people fear and detest. But this cannot be an excuse for doing nothing and for standing aside as successive Israeli governments colonize the West Bank and advance racist laws.
“I recall well the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in which he confesses to his “Christian and Jewish brothers” that he has been “gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom. …”
On a brighter note, the resolution that passed voiced support to “end all military aid to the region.”
Jewish Voices For Peace was unsurprisingly the most active group pushing for divestment, along with the interfaith group Fellowship of Reconciliation. While they failed to convince the Methodists that “divestment from the Israeli occupation is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Jewish,” important lessons were learned by the outreach experience.
One thing that became clear to activists was that the targeted companies are fully aware and unrepentant of their role in aiding Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people. Thus, they can move forward now with clear certainty that there is no point in further negotiating with these corporations.
JVP reported that the General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of the UMC, Jim Winkler, recently stated:
“As someone who has been involved in the discussions by UM agencies and ecumenical partners with Caterpillar for six years, I would like to share critical issues we have repeatedly raised with the company.
Regrettably, in all of these meetings, including one last week, Caterpillar has told us it has no intention to change any of its business practices relating to the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Another important development in the struggle for justice is that what was once considered “unthinkable” is now being spoken. Tutu writes:
“If we do not achieve two states in the near future, then the day will certainly arrive when Palestinians move away from seeking a separate state of their own and insist on the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, the Israeli government, in a single, democratic state.”
There are still those who would recoil from the idea of Palestinian and Israeli sharing a land in equality as “antisemitism,” but within the American political context this is a pretty uncomfortable position to maintain. For this reason, opponents of equality have worked hard to stifle debate by reframing the issues using emotional language and veiled threats.
White churches have a lot to lose by upsetting the status quo, while Black churches usually have more pressing local concerns. Church involvement in the divestment movement, even if totally supportive, would be more symbolic than effective for major change. However, it is vital to continue to bring the debate into the general American public in these and various other ways.