Commentary Magazine


Topic: United Methodist Church

The Boycott That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Much has already been said, here and elsewhere, about the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS). But a particularly unpleasant turn in this saga has been the infiltration of mainline Protestant churches by pro-boycott activists. Jonathan Tobin has written extensively about how this phenomenon has played out within the Presbyterian Church. The United Methodist Church, however, has until now held out firmly against those within their movement who would see them go the way of the Presbyterians. Yet last week the church’s pension board announced that it would be divesting from the British security company G4S on account of the fact that it provides equipment for Israeli prisons and the military operating in the West Bank.

The problem is that back at their convention two years ago, Methodists voted in an overwhelming 2-1 majority against divestment from companies operating in Israel. This decision, it would seem, was simply taken independently by the pension’s board. But given that the grassroots of the Methodist Church (America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination) don’t appear to share this antipathy to Israel, there has been a certain degree of backlash. And rather than defend their actions for what they are—a legitimization of the fiercely anti-Israel BDS movement—the pensions board has shamefully attempted to deny that any such divestment has taken place.

In a “clarification” released over the weekend, the church’s pension board insisted that this move wasn’t about Israel but rather was specific to G4S, claiming the initial investment had been a mistake because the church has a policy of not investing in prisons. Rather, the statement blamed the media and activist groups for labeling this move as a symbolic gesture in favor of divestment against Israel. Given that the investment in question concerns just $110,000 in stock this move was clearly always symbolic. But the explanation given by the Methodists and their pension board just isn’t convincing.

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Much has already been said, here and elsewhere, about the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS). But a particularly unpleasant turn in this saga has been the infiltration of mainline Protestant churches by pro-boycott activists. Jonathan Tobin has written extensively about how this phenomenon has played out within the Presbyterian Church. The United Methodist Church, however, has until now held out firmly against those within their movement who would see them go the way of the Presbyterians. Yet last week the church’s pension board announced that it would be divesting from the British security company G4S on account of the fact that it provides equipment for Israeli prisons and the military operating in the West Bank.

The problem is that back at their convention two years ago, Methodists voted in an overwhelming 2-1 majority against divestment from companies operating in Israel. This decision, it would seem, was simply taken independently by the pension’s board. But given that the grassroots of the Methodist Church (America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination) don’t appear to share this antipathy to Israel, there has been a certain degree of backlash. And rather than defend their actions for what they are—a legitimization of the fiercely anti-Israel BDS movement—the pensions board has shamefully attempted to deny that any such divestment has taken place.

In a “clarification” released over the weekend, the church’s pension board insisted that this move wasn’t about Israel but rather was specific to G4S, claiming the initial investment had been a mistake because the church has a policy of not investing in prisons. Rather, the statement blamed the media and activist groups for labeling this move as a symbolic gesture in favor of divestment against Israel. Given that the investment in question concerns just $110,000 in stock this move was clearly always symbolic. But the explanation given by the Methodists and their pension board just isn’t convincing.

G4S has been at the top of the BDS hit list for some time now, along with other favorites like Sodastream and Ahava. More to the point, this move by the pensions board came after considerable lobbying by United Methodist Kairos Response, a hardline pro-Palestinian activist group within the Methodist Church that has been advocating and campaigning for divestment from Israel for some years. When this move was announced they were under no doubt that they had had a victory and announced it as such, celebrating the move as a “landmark divestment action.” David Wildman, United Methodist executive secretary for human rights and racial justice at the General Board of Global Ministries, similarly released a statement referring to Israel’s “illegal … military occupation” and calling the move a “strong human rights message both to G4S specifically and to other companies whose business operations support longstanding human rights abuses against Palestinians.” And while the Methodist pension board has attempted to blame the New York Times for this move being reported as an act of BDS, their own United Methodist Reporter quite openly recorded that, “The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits is divesting its investments with a company for the first time due to Israel’s illegal settlements and military occupation.”

It is difficult to make sense of any of this. But the most likely explanation is that this is another instance of an activist vanguard hijacking the relevant committees of moderate institutions with the intention of directing them toward an extreme end. Given that this agenda is completely out of line with the grassroots consensus of the Methodist Church, there has been an attempt to obscure what is being done here. That still leaves others to celebrate this as a blow struck for the anti-Israel agenda, and more importantly it opens the way to legitimizing further divestment and boycott actions in the future.

And underlying all of this, it is impossible to discount the specter of resurgent Christian anti-Semitism, which now sees its greatest growth potential in the liberal rather than the conservative denominations. One can’t imagine that most Methodists would wish to go the way of the Presbyterians, or for that matter their British counterparts who, during their 2010 national conference, voted for a boycott amidst speeches where delegates spoke of being the “heirs of Abraham” as part of a “new covenant” that “never speaks of the land or owning it” and rejects “a racist God with favorites.” We should be open eyed about where all of this may be going, but also about where some of this is coming from.

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Attack on Israel Must End Interfaith Sham

For mainstream American Jewish groups, it has long been an article of faith that strong alliances with liberal Protestant denominations with whom they shared a common agenda on domestic issues is integral to the safeguarding of the security and the rights of the Jewish community. That has been tested in recent years, as some of their liberal Christian partners debated supporting efforts to boycott, divest and sanction the state of Israel. But the latest instance of liberal Christians attacking Israel ought to cut the cord completely.

As the Times of Israel and JTA report, the leaders of several of the leading American Protestant denominations and one small Catholic group have signed a letter calling for a congressional investigation whose purpose would be to end U.S. aid to Israel. The letter alleges that Israel is involved in crimes that violate U.S. law that should prevent the sending of aid or arms to the Jewish state. These charges are a tissue of deceptions, distortions and outright lies that are the product of Palestinian propaganda. (Though some of it is supported by radical leftist Jewish groups like B’Tselem, whose leaders own ambivalence toward Zionism has been documented in COMMENTARY.) The main focus of the letter is to delegitimize Israeli self-defense and to ignore the reality of Palestinian intransigence and opposition to peace. However, the reaction of Jewish groups to this latest development should not be ambivalent. To its credit, the Anti-Defamation League has said it will withdraw from a national Jewish-Christian dialogue event. They should not be the only Jewish group to do so.

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For mainstream American Jewish groups, it has long been an article of faith that strong alliances with liberal Protestant denominations with whom they shared a common agenda on domestic issues is integral to the safeguarding of the security and the rights of the Jewish community. That has been tested in recent years, as some of their liberal Christian partners debated supporting efforts to boycott, divest and sanction the state of Israel. But the latest instance of liberal Christians attacking Israel ought to cut the cord completely.

As the Times of Israel and JTA report, the leaders of several of the leading American Protestant denominations and one small Catholic group have signed a letter calling for a congressional investigation whose purpose would be to end U.S. aid to Israel. The letter alleges that Israel is involved in crimes that violate U.S. law that should prevent the sending of aid or arms to the Jewish state. These charges are a tissue of deceptions, distortions and outright lies that are the product of Palestinian propaganda. (Though some of it is supported by radical leftist Jewish groups like B’Tselem, whose leaders own ambivalence toward Zionism has been documented in COMMENTARY.) The main focus of the letter is to delegitimize Israeli self-defense and to ignore the reality of Palestinian intransigence and opposition to peace. However, the reaction of Jewish groups to this latest development should not be ambivalent. To its credit, the Anti-Defamation League has said it will withdraw from a national Jewish-Christian dialogue event. They should not be the only Jewish group to do so.

The point here is that the letter, as well as the divestment activities of some of these churches, is nothing less than a declaration of war on the Jewish state. So long as these religious groups dedicate themselves to promoting libels against Israel, denouncing the security fence that has saved countless lives from Palestinian terrorism and seeks to isolate Israel and cut it off from its only ally and source of military aid, business as usual between them and American Jewry must end.

Some Jews see such dialogue efforts as an end in itself, but this is a fallacy. Any interfaith program must be based on mutual respect and any church group that aligns itself with Israel’s enemies lacks respect for Jewish life. Dialogue on those terms is a sham.

That these church groups couch their letter in language that seeks to portray their efforts as those of “peacemakers” is all the more offensive. Far from promoting peace, these anti-Zionist clerics are actually fomenting violence by undermining Israeli defensive measures and thereby encouraging Palestinians to think they can succeed in isolating Israel.

The letter, signed by, among others, the leaders of the National Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., the American Friends Service Committee, and other groups, including the Catholic Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, is also particularly vile since it seeks to extend the BDS movement from church investments to the instruments of American foreign policy. It is nothing less than a manifesto seeking to sever the U.S.-Israel alliance and therefore cast the still-besieged Jewish state adrift in a hostile region bent on its destruction.

That the groups should have sent the letter only days after Iran repeated its latest slanders and threats is ironic but no coincidence. Despite their protestations of a desire for peace and non-violence, these churches have been remarkably silent about the religious persecution going on in Iran. It is only little, democratic Israel that is beset by enemies seeking its destruction that attracts their passionate opposition.

It should be specified that in most cases, these positions are largely the work of a small group of left-wing activists that dominate the public affairs policy work of their churches. Most rank-and-file members of Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist churches are, like most Americans, strong supporters of Israel and have little idea that this assault on Israel is being done in their name. But it is incumbent on them as well as other decent church leaders to denounce this letter and other BDS activities. Until they do, no American Jewish group should have any dealings with the signatories or the groups involved in this letter.

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