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.