As I just reported, the Mennonite and Episcopal churches voted to reject or table divestment resolutions this week. But, at its 2015 Synod, the United Church of Christ voted overwhelmingly to divest from companies said to “profit from the occupation of the Palestinian territories.” The vote took place on Tuesday. On the same day, a resolution declaring Israel an apartheid state failed, but only because it needed a 2/3 majority to pass. That a narrow majority of delegates voted for even this latter resolution is astounding, not least because its preamble treats as an act of aggression Israel’s War of Independence, in which Israel repulsed the attack of Palestinian Arabs and of five Arab armies, joined in a determination not to see the British Mandate in Palestine divided between Jews and Arabs. But then, UCC leaders are evidently prepared to be swayed by the church’s Palestine-Israel network which, as I have documented here, directs those who wish to educate themselves about the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts to a site that publishes such gems as “Why the World Should Not Be Controlled by the Zionist Jews.” One cannot escape the conclusion that the majority of the UCC delegates are either very radical or very ignorant; or perhaps one needn’t choose.
Although one cannot deny that this turn of events is a victory for the movement to boycott Israel, I doubt it is a significant one. First, as Jonathan Rynhold has explained in his recent The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture, hostility toward Israel is a great mainline Protestant tradition. Henry Van Dusen, no fringe figure he, was more provocative than but not unrepresentative of elite mainline opinion when he described Israel’s actions in the Six Day Way as “the most violent, ruthless (and successful) aggression since Hitler’s blitzkrieg across Western Europe in the summer of 1940, aiming not at victory but at annihilation.”
Second, as the reference to mainline “elite” opinion is meant to suggest, there is no reason to think that the actions of the delegates, any more than the divestment actions of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) last year, represent the opinion of mainline rank and file. An April 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of white mainline Protestants sympathized with Israel more than the Palestinians, compared to just 11 percent who sympathized more with the Palestinians. That is not much different from the U.S. average. Similarly, although the delegates at the Synod plainly think that even the Obama administration is not hostile enough to Israel, the poll finds that a plurality of white mainline Protestants (42 percent) think the Obama administration’s level of support is right. Twenty-four percent think President Obama supports the Palestinians too much and only 7 percent think he supports Israel too much. Again, this is hardly different from all Americans polled. A February 2015 poll, also conducted by Pew, found that 43 percent of white mainline Protestants held a favorable view of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared to 24 percent who held an unfavorable opinion. That’s slightly better than Netanyahu fared with the U.S. adult population overall. In short, mainline leadership appears far, indeed, from mainline non-elites on Israel.
Third and finally, the UCC is small and getting smaller, presently accounting for four-tenths of one percent of the adult U.S. population. Between 2000 and 2010, the UCC lost over 300,000 members, an astronomical loss for a group that, in fall 2014, put its membership at less than a million. Of those who remain, 67% are 50 or over.
No one should be losing any sleep over this.