Jonathan Tobin has written about the latest defeat for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. At the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, meeting from May 10-20, several divestment resolutions failed to make it out of committee, and by wide margins. Although they could still be taken up by the full conference, it hardly seems likely any one of them has enough support to pass.
Now, even more strikingly, the General Conference has voted 478-318 to “encourage the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) to withdraw its current membership in the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation… and to end any financial contributions, including staff participation.” The U.S. Campaign, as the resolution says, is a “one-sided” coalition whose agenda “includes seeking ‘to isolate Israel economically, socially, and culturally,’ and promoting ‘comprehensive divestment’ against Israel, while overlooking anti-Israel aggression.” “Blaming only one side while ignoring the wrongdoing of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran,” the successful resolution continues, “will not advance the cause of peace.”
To be sure, two even more anti-BDS resolutions, both of which mandated, rather than merely encouraging, a break with the U.S. Campaign failed in close votes in committee. Nonetheless, those boycott activists who were hoping for momentum at this year’s General Conference will now have to digest the fact that the Methodist Church not only rejected divestment but, while they were at it, slapped BDS in the face
Yet the Church’s pension board of the Church had as recently as January placed five Israeli banks on a list of companies “that it will not invest in for human rights reasons.” This move was widely hailed by pro-BDS groups as a sign of their momentum. So what accounts for the repudiation of BDS by the General Conference?
Hillary Clinton’s letter opposing BDS has received a lot of attention, as she is herself a Methodist. But I doubt the letter was decisive. Instead, the BDS momentum was a mirage.
To begin with, although BDS activism has been intense for years, and the Methodist Church has denounced Israel’s presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as its settlement policies, the Church rejected divestment decisively, by a 2 to 1 margin at its 2012 conference. The Church also rejected divestment in 2008.
Moreover, the pension board move against Israeli banks met with stiff resistance. Indeed, the very same month, the board announced guidelines that seemed “specifically designed to ward off the BDS movement’s near pathological obsession with Israel.” Specifically, in identifying “countries demonstrating a prolonged and systematic pattern of human rights violations,” the board made clear that it would use the Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report, which typically gives Israel high marks. Although the guidelines also require the board to take a close look at companies involved in “conflict ridden areas,” the bar for the required degree of involvement is so high that companies like Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola, typical targets of the BDS movement, are very unlikely to be targeted by the pension board.
In this context, it is the divestment from the five Israeli banks, not the rejection of BDS, that seems anomalous.
Make no mistake. The United Methodist Church is no friend of Israel. As I already noted, the Church, prior to this year’s Conference, was already on record opposing Israel’s presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and opposing settlements. The resolution in question, which asks the United States to end all military aid to the region, affirms a Palestinian right of return, and urges a boycott of settlement products, shows a reckless disregard for the rights and needs of Israelis. The Church has reaffirmed that resolution twice since its first 2004 passage. For that reason, we should probably contain our excitement about the Church’s latest vote.
At the same time Tobin is surely right that the reason even a Church that adopts and readopts such a resolution nonetheless rejects BDS is that although they think Israel has much to answer for, “they see efforts to destroy it as immoral.” As far as I know, the United Methodist Church is the first to vote to encourage a severing of ties with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, whose member groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace, have been very active in church divestment campaigns.
That’s not the kind of momentum BDS is looking for.