This is the final post from our guestposters, Rae Abileah and Ariel Vegosen, Jewish Voice for Peace volunteer youth activist members on the ground at the United Methodist general conference leading up to the divestment vote.-ed.
When it comes to the nonviolent tactic of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, the United Methodist Church now has B and S covered. But without the D, is it just BS? No, not entirely.
Yesterday, May 2, the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) failed to pass a measure to divest from three companies – Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and HP – profiting from Israeli occupation and human rights abuses of Palestinians, but succeeded in resolving to boycott Israeli settlement products. We were in Tampa at the UMC conference this past week as part of a Jewish advocacy team for boycott and divestment, and returned home to the San Francisco Bay Area just a day before the vote took place. Yesterday we watched the UMC livestream, twitter and twitter feed on the edge of our seats. The outcome was a deeply divided church that takes a firm stand against Occupation but isn’t yet willing to put its money where its values are. And “yet” is the operative word here, because the church is clearly now one step closer to a day when this will happen.
United Methodist Kairos Response, the main Methodist group behind the divestment resolution, wrote, “We have achieved a great victory nonetheless. We have succeeded in raising awareness amongst the general public and in our churches about the suffering of Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, living under Israel’s nearly 45-year-old military occupation, and the colonization of their lands. The brutal reality of the Israeli occupation can no longer be hidden.” Indeed, the issue became such a hot topic that it landed a major, fair and balanced story in the NY Times last night.
Let’s review who was behind the church divestment vote. If it was just a major Methodist organization – UM Kairos Response – then dayenu. If it was UMKR plus over a dozen other major Methodist organizations, including General Board of Church and Society, General Board of Global Ministries, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Black Methodists For Church Renewal, and six regional UMC conferences, dayenu. Palestinian Christians added their voices to the call, including Methodist Missionary Alex Awad and founder of the Tent of Nations Daoud Nasser, dayenu. Add in Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Young Jewish Proud and dozens of rabbis (www.rabbisletter.org), dayenu. Add to this interfaith coalition major voices in human rights and politics such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who wrote a profoundly eloquent op-ed supporting divestment), dayenu. Plus a long list of Israelis supporting divestment, dayenu. In the end, all of these voices were not enough to tip the scales from Occupation profiteering to ethical investment, much like the enormous coalition of diverse student groups at UC Berkeley who amassed to support college divestment from Occupation last spring did not see their resolution survive the student government president’s veto. Yet each time the divestment campaign is waged, unique coalitions of diverse people come together, and new, and often prominent, voices speak out. We are building a movement, a movement that is gaining strength and supporters.
Methodist Church Resolves to Boycott Settlement Products
The vote preceding the divestment debate was a vote on an amended version of the Resolution on Opposition to Israeli Settlements in Palestinian Land, and this vote passed overwhelmingly. This resolution states that the Methodist Church opposes “products made by Israeli companies operating in occupied Palestinian territories.” The church also called on all nations “to prohibit any financial support by individuals or organizations for the construction and maintenance of settlements, and the import of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.” Finally, the church urges “the U.S. government to examine the role played by donations from tax-exempt charities in support of discriminatory and other illegal aspects of Israeli settlements, and develop recommendations to ensure that tax-exempt funds do not support settlements and other violations of international law.”
This resolution may imply that church gift shops should refuse to sell Ahava Dead Sea cosmetics, which are made in the illegal settlement Mitzpe Shalem, and as thus are the subject of an international boycott campaign, and perhaps clergy could ask their parishoners not to buy SodaStream products, also made in an illegal settlement. The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee has already filed complaints with the IRS about several US organizations that support settlements, including: Friends of Efrat, Hebron Fund, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, and American Friends of Ateret Cohanim. Certainly the church could push the government to investigate these charitable organizations and review the data already collected on the issue (see this report). It will be up to members of the Methodist Church and allies to push for action on this breakthrough resolution.
Church Advocates Sanctions
The resolution also reaffirms what the church has said for over 30 years: “We urge the U.S. government to end all military aid to the region.” Since 2004, the UMC has called for the redistribution of military aid now given to Egypt and Israel to economic development organizations throughout the region including religious institutions, human rights groups, labor unions and professional groups within Palestinian community. This bold call by the UMC for sanctions on Israel is backed by the church’s long-standing position on the occupation: “The United Methodist Church opposes continued military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the confiscation of Palestinian land and water resources, the destruction of Palestinian homes, the continued building of illegal Jewish settlements, and any vision of a ‘Greater Israel’ that includes the occupied territories and the whole of Jerusalem and its surroundings.”
Everything but the “D”
As Jewish allies never having been to a Methodist Conference before, we had a steep learning curve to understand the church decision making process. Here’s what we’ve deduced: the show isn’t over. While divestment didn’t pass on the international level, individual “conferences” – regional church bodies – can and have voted on divestment resolutions. The United Methodist conference in West Ohio has already divested from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and General Electric. And two other northeast conferences – New York and Northern Illinois – have also divested from companies that profit from the Israeli Occupation, including CAT. The Western Ohio area advocates of divestment were able to pass the resolution with support from key conservatives, showing widespread support in the church for ethical investment. In addition, just this past month the Quakers voted to divest from Caterpillar. The Church of England divested from Caterpillar in 2009. The Presbyterian Church will be considering divestment at their conference later this summer.
It’s helpful to remember that the call for boycott of Apartheid South Africa came out in 1959, but Apartheid wasn’t ended until 1994, thirty-five years later, and along the way church divestment suffered many setbacks (Ali Abunimah’s article on this is worth a click). In the 1980s, the United Methodist Church divested over $77 million dollars from 17 companies involved in Apartheid. While the struggle to overturn apartheid in South Africa was a very long process spanning decades, the use of the tactic of boycott and divestment to end Israeli Occupation has been gaining successes and receiving media attention at a more rapid rate today.
Mind The Generation Gap
On numerous issues of progressive concern, from gay rights to divestment from Occupation to youth inclusivity, there appears to be a rift in the UMC, perhaps intensified by a generational divide. Young Methodists gathered together for rallies about inclusion and voices frustration at feeling silenced, and many young participants joined in the queer solidarity flashmobs and events throughout the conference. In the twitterverse, the vast majority of tweets seem to support gay rights and supported the divestment resolution. “#churchdivest” even became a trending word within the #gc2012 stream.
As young Jews, we see this generational divide in our community as well. As Peter Beinart noted in his NY Times article, young Jewish opinion on the Israeli government and military is dramatically different than that of our parents, bubbies and zadies: “[Young Jews] are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril.” Even when it comes to the rabbinate, young rabbis are often more likely to support the politics of JSTREET or JVP than their AIPAC-loving predecessors.
When the Jewish institutions try to shut out debate on Israeli policies and shun BDS, many young Jews move further away from the Jewish establishment. In a successful effort to bring daylight on to the issue, JVP launched a national event series this spring called Go & Learn: BDS Education in Jewish Communities. The Go & Learn curriculum has innovative exercises for creating a safe discussion on nonviolent tools for justice for Palestinians. Who knows, maybe one day soon Jewish denominations will also be considering boycott and divestment resolutions!
Friends Don’t Let Friends…
At the end of the debate I tweeted: “It’s simple: #UMC says NO to Occupation & YES to funding Occupation. It’s like telling ur friend STOP drinking & BUYING him liquor. #gc2012”
While the countless resolutions, amendments, minority reports, and floor statements may have made the issue incredibly confusing, let’s be clear – the Methodist vote yesterday was very simple: The church says “No!” to the Israeli Occupation, “No!” to illegal settlements, and “Yes!” to funding that very same Occupation. Some would call this a hypocrisy. But it’s more than that – it’s a classic enabling of a power structure that is not working. Picture this: Your friend repeatedly goes out and drinks too much, resulting in bar fights, abuse of his girlfriend, and the occasional car crash and DUI. You keep telling your friend to stop drinking – it’s bad for his health and it hurts you to watch him being so harmful. He asks you to buy him a drink – ahem, a case of beer. What would you do? Would you keep buying him beer while shaming his drinking problem?
We must put actions behind our words. Nonviolent action is the shining hope toward creating a more just, peaceful Middle East. The United Methodist Church has made major strides this week in Tampa by proclaiming a settlement boycott and urging the US government to halt military aid to Israel. And it must go farther if it aims to have its investments in alignment with its gospel and resolutions.
Rae Abileah is a founding member of Young Jewish Proud, the youth wing of Jewish Voice for Peace. She is a Jewish American of Israeli descent and has visited Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. She currently works as the national co-director of CODEPINK Women for Peace.
Ariel Vegosen is a professional dialogue facilitator, Jewish educator, and inter-faith community organizer. She is a member of Young Jewish and Proud – the youth wing of Jewish Voice for Peace. She works with the Community of Living Traditions – a Jewish, Christian, and Muslim community committed to nonviolence – and serves on the board of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.