An abbreviated version of the following testimony was delivered yesterday by UMAction Director John Lomperis to the board of directors of the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church. This denominational agency, which manages billions of dollars of assets and investments on behalf of the church, has been pressured by activists for the Palestinian cause to divest from companies described as “profiting from the Israeli occupation,” as these same activists have successfully gotten some United Methodist annual conferences (regions) to do.
Thanks for hearing me out. I am here as your brother in Christ, as a longtime fellow United Methodist, as an elected General Conference delegate, and as the director of one of the major evangelical caucuses within our denomination, the UMAction program of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Some activists have lobbied various United Methodist leaders to single out certain companies for divestment because of their business with Israel, particularly companies characterized as “profiting from the Israeli occupation.”
As you approach these matters, both for the board’s internal work and for your influence at General Conference, I respectfully express my hope that you will consider some reasons why such agendas are morally irresponsible, factually misleading, unrepresentative of United Methodists, and really harmful to the church we all love.
These specific companies accused of “profiting from the occupation” did not get targeted out of nowhere. The Israel-tied companies United Methodist leaders get asked to boycott – Motorola, Caterpillar, Sodastream, etc – have all been targeted by the so-called “BDS movement.” The acronym refers to a very broad and radical campaign of comprehensive boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, from boycotting any Israeli company to getting musicians to refuse to perform for Israeli audiences to even shunning and marginalizing Israeli academics who have been strongly critical of Israeli government policies. BDS is a movement of collective punishment that treats all Israelis as inherently guilty.
I have spent a great deal of time actively listening to divestment advocates within our church, including by attending a conference at Ginghamsburg UMC last year in which speakers heavily pushed the broad BDS cause and openly admitted that seemingly narrow campaigns targeting specific companies like Caterpillar were integrated parts of the wider BDS effort. In evaluating the true agenda of United Methodist divestment from companies like Caterpillar over their business in Israel, we should note that ALL the groups within the UMC pushing this—UM Kairos Response, the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), United Methodist Women (UMW), the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), and the Holy Land Task Force—every single one is a member organization of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which is a very strong supporter of the BDS movement.[i] This group’s website, in its own words, explains that the anti-Caterpillar campaign “is part and parcel of this international BDS campaign,” that it is part of an effort “to isolate Israel economically, socially, and culturally,” and that “it will be near to impossible to hurt Caterpillar economically, but that’s not the point. This Campaign aims to be a public relations campaign…”[ii]
A key BDS leader, Omar Barghouti, admits that some of these specific companies are actually NOT the ones he thinks are the most complicit in Israeli wrongdoing, but are being targeted for divestment due to nakedly political calculations that these were more winnable fights to pick.
So the primary impact of giving into these calls for divestment would be less about these targeted companies than about attaching the name of our denomination to giving a major PR victory to the BDS movement and promoting its narrative.
That narrative is, essentially, that Israel is a Western colonial power oppressively occupying the native land of the Palestinians, doing things like building separation fences just to be mean, and that Hamas’s rockets are merely a symptom of the root cause of Israeli wrongdoing. The ultimate goals of divestment are often not articulated more clearly than “if Israel would just stop it, then we would have peace!”
I commend those of your staff who have stood firm against a lot of angry pressure from divestment activists. But not only is divestment the wrong solution – the BDS movement misrepresents the basic problem.
The BDS movement characterizes Jewish Israelis with inflammatory words like “colonial” and “occupation.” But not only is this area the historic homeland of the Jewish people, but there has been a continuous Jewish presence there since biblical times.[iii] Sometimes they are more careful in narrowly complaining about the lands where Palestinians live, like the West Bank, that Israel has controlled since 1967 (with no mention of the lands Israel has given up since then). But this came about from a war between Israel and several neighboring nations who had recently entered into an ominous military alliance, taken threatening actions towards Israel, and in some cases had openly spoken of wanting to annihilate Israel.[iv] Since 1967, Israelis have been no more without sin than any of the rest of us. But they have reached out their hands towards Palestinian leaders in search of a partner for peace, and been left hanging. There remains a lot of support among Israelis for letting Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have their own independent nation, if only there could be some basic guarantees that such a new neighbor would not seek to attack or destroy Israel. And yet the charter of Hamas, a governing partner in the Palestinian territories, is openly committed Israel’s destruction.[v]
Those pushing divestment and BDS have said, like at Mike Slaughter’s big event at Ginghamsburg UMC last year, that we need to pursue divestment because the Israelis are driven by greed, and so if we hit their pocketbooks, that will make them stop the occupation.[vi]
No, not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. But it would be morally irresponsible to ignore the anti-Semitism that taints much of the BDS movement, especially when it is as blatant as telling us to ignore the facts and just assume that this is the Jews being greedy again. Especially when the movement is based around singling out the world’s lone Jewish state for de-legitimization, double-standards, and knee-jerk opposition to protections of its people’s lives. And it should give us pause when we see hatemongers like white supremacist David Duke endorse the push for church divestment from the companies we are being asked to divest from.
(SLIDE) We should think about what else might be motivating this fragile nation, formally founded a few short years after the Holocaust, regularly facing fanatically genocidal hatred and terrorism, and occupying such a tiny strip of land surrounded by so many nations that refuse to formally recognize its right to exist, and with several of these nations’ leaders having openly call for Israel’s destruction?
I am not saying that there are no Israeli government actions that merit challenge. But with them having faced such a history of hatred, genocide, existential threats, and marginalization, do we really think that these divestment campaigns, that direct further marginalization against Israel and that act like the Jewish lives killed and threatened by terrorism don’t matter, is the most effective way to convince Israeli leaders that they are not surrounded by enemies and they can afford to stop worrying so much about the security threats that drive their behavior? That’s much more likely to have the opposite effect. This is a specific point that has been made by one of the General Board of Church and Society’s own directors.
Since the specific targeted companies are really not the main issue for the activists pushing divestment, by their own admission, I don’t want to spend too much time on them. But too often our denominational discourse has been limited to “given that we all agree that Israel and these companies are doing horrible things, is divestment the best tool to get them to change?” But when is it ever just for anyone, let alone a Christian church, to simply accept a severe accusation against someone else without hearing their side of the story?
Some have pushed our church to join the BDS movement’s boycott of the company, Sodastream, largely because of it having had a factory in a controversial West Bank Jewish settlement, and it allegedly not being good for its Palestinian and Bedouin workers. But this ignores how the West Bank factory was providing appreciated employment for hundreds of Palestinians in areas where unemployment estimates range from 22 to 30 percent, and that the plant in a Bedouin city whose mayor has strongly encouraged and welcomed SodaStream as “a symbol of hope and cooperation.”[vii]
The same pro-BDS groups are saying we should divest from Caterpillar because its products are involved in such awful Israeli activities as building a “separation barrier.” But this mainly wire and chain-link security fence (very little of which is an actual concrete wall) was built to stop the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians, and has been credited with stopping a lot of attacks. (SLIDE) Here’s a graphic showing how Israeli deaths from terrorism have dramatically declined the more of this security fence has been built.[viii] For our church to support the anti-Caterpillar rhetoric that the fence, deceptively labeled a “Separation Wall,” is nothing but evil and needs to be torn down with no alternative, as is the case with the GBCS resolution calling for divestment from Caterpillar does, would convey the message that the lives this fence has saved do not matter to us.
This divestment push is riddled with moral inconsistencies. Pro-divestment groups profess concern for Palestinian Christians, but this frankly seems like cynically treating these brothers and sisters as mere rhetorical props when they are silent about these people’s mistreatment by Palestinian Muslims. While encouraging sanctions and divestment against Israel, the GBCS is submitting another General Conference resolution calling for removing sanctions and promoting economic investment in North Korea while being silent about that dictatorship’s brutal oppression of Christians.
We know that in the USA, our denomination is in a membership crisis, and this is ominous for our financial future. At my office, we hear regularly from people leaving our church in direct response to them hearing about agencies using our church’s name to support political agendas they see as far-left and out of touch.
While United Methodists pushing for divestment get a lot of attention, they don’t appear to account for more than a tiny fraction of the great silent majority who does not favor this agenda. Despite all the big lobbying and attention, the last General Conference rejected their agenda by a 2-1 vote. The way other general agencies have continued pushing the divestment agenda and the wider BDS movement, that has already been so decisively rejected by a super-majority of our church represents a serious breach of trust, and really hurts the credibility of these agencies.
There’s more. A Pew survey found that 46 percent of American United Methodists lean Republican while 42 percent lean Democratic.[ix] In terms of the most immediate mission fields of our local churches, a study by the GBGM’s own research office found that the vast majority of our U.S. congregations are located in “red” counties that voted for George W. Bush. Strong support for Israel, including military aid, is the mainstream position of both major U.S. political parties. This year, state legislatures in Illinois and New York—liberal, blue-state Democrats—unanimously or nearly unanimously adopted position statements very broadly opposing the BDS movement and its tactics. In the words of the New York resolution, “punitive economic measures targeting Israel [which would certainly include divestment against Caterpillar] undermine dialogue, economic cooperation and political reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, which is the necessary foundation for a lasting peace in the Middle East.”[x]
Recent polls show that the majority of Americans sympathize more with Israel while, depending on how the question is worded, as few as two percent to up to no more than 16 percent sympathize more with the Palestinians.[xi]
Of course, as Christians, we need to care about all people. But the pro-divestment groups have been very clear in framing their agenda by saying, as one speaker put it at least year’s big pro-divestment conference, that we should not have “a neutral standpoint,” but rather side with the Palestinians.
At such an already tense and divided time in the life of our denomination, do we really want to worsen mistrust, give people another reason to not be United Methodist, and alienate all but a small portion of our North American mission field?
In short, the push to divest from specific companies doing business with Israel, and the wider BDS movement behind it, is fundamentally unjust, factually misinformed, morally inconsistent, and out of touch with so much of our grassroots membership and our North American mission field. We can do better than that. I respectfully invite all who are concerned for our church’s unity, vitality, and moral authority to work to defeat these agendas at General Conference and all other levels of our beloved church.
[i] “Member Organizations,” U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation; available from: http://www.endtheoccupation.org/groups.php; accessed 30 October 2015.
[ii] The quotes cited can be downloaded at “PowerPoint Presentation,” U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation; available from: http://www.endtheoccupation.org/article.php?id=1214; accessed 30 October 2015.
[iii] “Response To Common Inaccuracy: Jews have no Connection to Israel,” Anti-Defamation League; available from: http://www.adl.org/israel-international/israel-middle-east/content/AG/inaccuracy-jewish-connection-israel.html#.VjQU4rerQ2w; accessed 30 October 2015.
[iv] C. N. Trueman, “The Six Day War,” The History Learning Site, 26 May 2015, available from http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/modern-world-history-1918-to-1980/the-middle-east-1917-to-1973/the-six-day-war/ – accessed 30 October 2015; “Six-Day War,” New World Encyclopedia, available from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Six-Day_War – accessed 30 October 2015; “Precursors to War: Arab Threats Against Israel,” CAMERA: Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, available from http://www.sixdaywar.org/content/threats.asp – accessed 30 October 2015; “The Six-Day War: Background & Overview,” Jewish Virtual Library, available from http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/67_War.html – accessed 30 October 2015.
[v] Nidal Al-Mughrabi, “Hamas Holds Gaza Military Parade, Vows Israel’s Destruction,” Reuters, 14 December 2014; available from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/15/us-mideast-hamas-israel-idUSKBN0JS0LO20141215; accessed 30 October 2015.
[vi] For more details, my own on-site reporting of that deeply troubling, divisive event can be found at the following links: https://juicyecumenism.com/2014/12/03/united-methodist-conference-promotes-anti-israel-divestment-boycotting-things-israeli/ and https://juicyecumenism.com/2014/12/05/united-methodist-agencies-activists-rally-israel/ and https://juicyecumenism.com/2014/12/08/pro-palestinian-advocacy-cross-line-anti-semitism/.
[vii] Clifford D. May, “Jobless and Desperate Palestinians: The Boycott, Divest and Sanction Campaign Will Produce More of Them,” Washington Times 27 October 2015, available from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/oct/27/clifford-may-jobless-and-desperate-palestinians/?page=all#pagebreak – accessed 30 October 2015; “SodaStream Leaves West Bank as CEO Says Boycott Antisemitic and Pointless,” The Guardian 2 September 2015, available from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/03/sodastream-leaves-west-bank-as-ceo-says-boycott-antisemitic-and-pointless – accessed 30 October 2015; Alan M. Dershowitz, “The Case Against Boycotting SodaStream,” Harvard Crimson 19 December 2014, available from http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2014/12/19/dershowitz-sodastream-against-boycott/ – accessed 30 October 2015; Dale Hanson Bourke, “5 Points about the SodaStream-Oxfam Dust-Up,” Washington Post 30 January 2014, available from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/5-points-about-the-sodastream-oxfam-dust-up/2014/01/30/c00b6d5e-89e0-11e3-a760-a86415d0944d_story.html – accessed 30 October 2015.
[viii] “Response To Common Inaccuracy: West Bank Security Barrier,” Anti-Defamation League; available from http://www.adl.org/israel-international/israel-middle-east/content/AG/inaccuracy-security-barrier.html#.VjQqLberQ2w; accessed 30 October 2015.
[ix] “Moderation in All Things? Do United Methodists Really Own the Middle Ground?,” United Methodist Communications; available from http://www.umcom.org/learn/moderation-in-all-things-do-united-methodists-really-own-the-middle-ground; accessed 30 October 2015.
[x] “K00705 Summary,” New York State Assembly; available from http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?default_fld=&bn=K00705&term=2015&Summary=Y&Actions=Y&Text=Y; accessed 29 October 2015. Jas Chana, “NY State Assembly Passes Anti-BDS Resolution: Near-unanimous support; bill expected to follow,” Tablet 22 June 2015; available from http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/191679/ny-state-assembly-passes-anti-bds-resolution; accessed 29 October 2015. “Illinois Passes Bill that Bans BDS Participants from State Pension Funds,” JNS.org News Service 18 May 2015; available from http://www.jns.org/news-briefs/2015/5/18/illinois-passes-bill-that-bans-bds-participants-from-state-pension-funds?rq=illinois#.VYMidM_BzGc=; accessed 29 October 2015.
[xi] CBS News Poll, 29 July – 4 August 2014, N=1,344 adults nationwide, Margin of error ± 3. Cf. NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll conducted by Hart Research Associates (D) and Public Opinion Strategies (R), 30 July – 3 August 2014, N=1,000 adults nationwide; Pew Research Center; 8-14 July 2014, N=1,805 adults nationwide, Margin of error ± 2.7; ABC News/Washington Post Poll, 7-10 March 2013, N=1,001 adults nationwide, Margin of error ± 3.5; Gallup Poll, 7-10 February 2013, N=1,015 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 4.