Getting the United Methodist Church to single out the world’s lone Jewish state for punitive “divestment” was a major agenda of an August conference at Mike Slaughter’s Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church near Dayton, Ohio.
The two-day rally for the Palestinian cause was sponsored by the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM). The August 7-8 conference was also heavily promoted by the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), which dispatched its own General Secretary, the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, to be one of the official speakers.
Ironically, the 2012 General Conference rejected, by a 2-1 margin, a strong push for the UMC to divest of its stock holdings in three specific companies (Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola) in protest of the business they do with Israel.
Yet this conference sponsored and led by apportionment-funded UMC agencies was rather exclusively an event of, by, and for a relatively small activist minority that is zealous for such targeted divestment, as well as for more dramatic anti-Israel action.
One workshop speaker, Susan Hoeder of the New England conference helpfully summarized “BDS” (Boycotts, Sanctions, and Divestment) as “boycotting all things Israeli.” While she personally focused on promoting more specifically targeted divestments as a better agenda for churches at this time, she made clear that “we” did not disagree with BDS, mocked the idea that such comprehensive divestment was “so radical,” and portrayed BDS and targeted divestment from specific companies as “two types of boycotts” proceeding from the same ultimate foundation and agenda.
At least three plenary speakers, Zoughbi Zoughbi, founding director of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem, Nora Carmi of Kairos Palestine (a group whose eponymous manifesto by Palestinian Christian leaders has been endorsed by some Muslim governments), and Alex Awad, a Palestinian Baptist pastor supported by GBGM, strongly plugged BDS. Awad drew applause by enthusing about the global growth of the BDS campaign “to get Israel to stop its attack on the Palestinians and their land.” The Baptist pastor also called on United Methodist bishops and annual conference leaders to have hunger-strike protests in front of the Israeli embassy.
Workshop leader Philip Farah not only promoted BDS but also rather ominously claimed that it was the only alternative for Palestinians “with the boot of occupation on [their] necks,” other than simply murdering Israelis. (Taking Israeli security concerns seriously and working with Israelis to end terrorist attacks remained largely unconsidered at this conference.)
Conference-goers were instructed at one point to have table discussions on how to promote the BDS movement. Conference organizers had no problem with using the agencies and funds of the entire denomination for an event that so narrow-mindedly excluded the majority of United Methodists who do not favor targeted anti-Israel divestment, let alone BDS.
Another plenary speaker, Grace Al-Zoughbi of Bethlehem Bible College, responded to a question by encouraging university-based divestment against Israel as “definitely” helpful.
Furthermore, the GBGM’s CEO, Thomas Kemper boasted to the conference of how in 2001 his agency (under previous management) helped co-found the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. The Campaign’s Interim Executive Director, Kathryn Johnson (former leader of the Methodist Federation for Social Action) was also present at the conference. This group, to which GBGM has given money for years, heavily promotes wide-ranging BDS in order “[t]o isolate Israel economically and diplomatically” and promotes “comprehensive divestment” from the Jewish state.
Several officials were also present from the UMC’s General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (GBPHB), which manages some $21 billion in assets. Its General Secretary, Barbara Boigegrain, reported about her agency’s commitment to socially responsible investment (including positive investment), including a recent trip to Israel at GBGM CEO Thomas Kemper’s invitation, where she met with a key BDS leader, Omar Barghouti.
Her agency has long been under pressure from activists for the Palestinian cause to take some divestment action against Israel. In one workshop he co-led, David Wildman of GBGM even urged conference-goers to continue pressuring the GBPHB officials at the conference, which seemed like a striking breach of cooperative protocol between UMC agencies.
GBPHB officials graciously led another workshop, on “corporate engagement,” explaining their financial responsibilities to investment beneficiaries and their practices of ethically screening investments, shareholder lobbying of companies, and positive investments in such human needs as low-income housing. In response to pressure from United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR), an unofficial caucus of United Methodists activists for the Palestinian cause, the board has recently created a “socially responsible plus” fund to give United Methodist pensioners to option to have their relevant investments not involve companies they find objectionable.
A main argument, however, of the GBPHB officials was that any ethically motivated divestments should be done while viewing the whole world in a morally consistent way, rather than just singling out Israel. Furthermore, Dave Zellner, the agency’s Chief Investment Officer, shared that Barghouti the BDS leader had admitted to them that he did not at all see Motorola, Caterpillar, and Hewlett-Packard as the most complicit in human rights abuses, but that they were being targeted because he thought these were winnable battles. But GBPHB has balked at this lack of moral consistency.
Workshop attendees rather angrily and sometimes rudely protested the agency’s failure to more fully submit to their agenda. Bart Beavin of UMKR dramatically raised his voice, practically yelling at the GBPHB officials about how the unquestionable morality of UMKR’s agenda was “cut and dried.” One incredulous woman asked why the agency would not simply move forward with divesting from three targeted companies (whose divestment had been overwhelming rejected at the last General Conference) since this seemed like the consensus view of the dozen or so members of the twelve-million-member denomination attending the workshop. One woman asked if GBPHB had been lobbied by AIPAC, and Zellner replied that they had not.
In any case, for the near future, they will likely continue to feel intense pressure from UMKR and general agency officials who see it as their job to exclusively pander to one narrow political faction of our diverse global denomination, even if that means directly opposing the official positions of General Conference.