Sunday, 29 April 2012

United Methodist Church Considers Divestment from Israel

Every four years the United Methodist Church convenes what is referred to as its General Conference—essentially the Church’s top legislative and policy-making body. The last time the General Conference met was four years ago. This year’s conference began Tuesday in Tampa, Florida, and is scheduled to run for a total of 11 days.

One of the major issues being addressed is a proposal that the church formally divest from Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard because of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (and in HP’s case the blockade of Gaza as well).

“For many years, United Methodist resolutions have urged an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and a sharing of the city of Jerusalem, which is holy to three faiths,” said a statement released by United Methodist Kairos Response, the group submitting the divestment resolution to the General Conference.

“Yet United Methodist boards and agencies hold stock in companies which sustain that occupation. It is time for the church to align its actions with its words. We need to stop investing in companies whose goods and services enable the occupation to continue,” the statement continues.

The United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR) is exactly what its name implies—a response by Methodists around the world to the Kairos Palestine document, which was published by Palestinian Christians in December of 2009. That publication came roughly one year after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead nightmare inflicted upon Gaza, a 22-day aerial bombardment and ground invasion which left some 1,400 Gazans dead, including approximately 300 children. The Kairos Palestine document refers to the Israeli occupation as “a sin against God and humanity.”

While the Methodist resolution is drawing the usual howls of anguish from Israel supporters, curiously the mainstream media have given it little attention. Coverage for the most part has come from the local media in Tampa (see here and here ). Yet it’s worth noting that the conference opening came just two days after the airing of a CBS “60 Minutes” report on Palestinian Christians. And it’s also important to note that other Christians are watching what’s going on in Tampa right now. The National Catholic Reporter has published an article on it, while the Presbyterian Church is expected to take up a similar resolution at a conference beginning in late June.

Like the Methodist proposal, the Presbyterian resolution also targets Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard.

“We have run out of hope that these companies are willing to change their corporate practices (in Israel-Palestine),” said the Rev. Brian Ellison, a Kansas City pastor and chair of the Presbyterian Church’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee. “We have made diligent effort to engage in conversation. We’d like to do more, to make progress, but substantial change does not seem possible.”

The fact that two major Christian denominations are considering divestments at this point may be what prompted the Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, to became so obviously incensed at the 60 Minutes report, or to almost literally “freak out” as one Palestinian writer observed:

The Israel Lobby's alliance with American Christians, particularly evangelicals, is an integral part of its successful efforts to influence American policy makers. How Israeli policies effect Palestinian Christians might change this and there were stirrings of concern in the Jewish community about a change in this relationship prior to Simon's 60 minutes segment. Thus, the preemptive strike against CBS was entirely predictable.

Oren seemed to be at a loss for words at some points and when Simon, a veteran journalist, told him he had never in his years of reporting received complaints on a story
before it aired Oren replied "Well, there is a first time for everything, Bob."

Oren's right, there is a first time for everything. This is the first time that an Israeli Ambassador's intimidation tactics were so bravely turned against him by a journalist who just wasn't going to take it any more. Hopefully it is a harbinger of things to come.

Perhaps Oren was secretly reflecting the concerns expressed by some 1,200 rabbis who sent out a letter opposing the divestment resolutions. As reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on April 18:

"We understand and respect your calling to invest in a morally responsible manner," said the letter, which was launched two weeks ago. "A policy of divestment to pressure Israel runs counter to these goals. Such a one-sided approach damages the relationship between Jews and Christians that has been nurtured for decades. It promotes a lopsided assessment of the causes of and solutions to the conflict, disregarding the complex history and geopolitics. Furthermore, it shamefully paints Israel as a pariah nation, solely responsible for frustrating peace."

More on the rabbinical letter can be found here . One of the rabbis opposing divestment is Noam E. Marans, who in a JTA op-ed opines that divestment proponents are trying to “turn the clock back on Christian-Jewish relations,” while further averring that the resolution is “an attempt to demonize Israel and is understood by many Jews as crossing a line.”

Marans also accuses the more “extreme” divestment supporters of using “discredited anti-Jewish tropes to characterize the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” I invite you to judge for yourself whether you find anything of that nature. The resolution in full reads as follows. Have a gander and see if you can spot any “tropes” here:


For more than 40 years, every United Methodist Church General Conference has endorsed calls for just and lasting peace for all Israelis and Palestinians, including an end to all military sales to the whole region.
  Tragically, ongoing military occupation and expanding Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands have deepened a system of violence and discrimination that dehumanizes Palestinians and Israelis.  The biblical mandate to be peacemakers demands that we express our love of our Palestinian and Israeli neighbors both in word and through nonviolent actions.  (Matthew 5: 9, 1 John 3:17-18)

The Council of Bishops reminds us in God’s Renewed Creation:
  Call to Hope and Action:  “We love God and neighbor by challenging those who do harm.  We must not only respond to the suffering already created, but also challenge people, companies, and governments that continue to exploit the weak, destroy the earth, perpetuate violence, and generate more weapons.  We follow Jesus’ example of confronting authorities nonviolently using the force of love.”

Palestinian Christians have implored Christians everywhere to put actions behind their words to end Israel's occupation of Palestinian land, which is destroying their lives (Kairos Palestine Document).[i] Although The United Methodist Church has long opposed the occupation, The United Methodist Church boards and agencies still hold stock in companies that sustain it.[ii]

In 1996, The United Methodist Church General Conference declared that “continuing efforts by the State of Israel to build settlements in the occupied territories violate both international law and the spirit of the Declaration of Principles [the Oslo peace process].”[iii] The 2004 General Conference approved a resolution opposing “confiscation of Palestinian land … the continued building of illegal Jewish settlements, and any vision of a
  ‘Greater Israel’  that includes the occupied territories and the whole of Jerusalem and its surroundings.”[iv]

The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline discourages investment in companies “that directly or indirectly support the violation of human rights” (¶716).[v] Palestinian human rights are violated by companies that sustain illegal settlements, segregated roads, checkpoints, the separation wall, home demolitions and other realities of the occupation.

Researchers with the General Boards of Global Ministries, Pensions and Health Benefits, and Church and Society, several annual conferences, and ecumenical partners have identified a limited number of US and international companies that sustain Israel’s occupation.[vi] United Methodists have engaged Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett Packard on this issue for years and have asked them to end their involvement with the occupation.

The Book of Discipline requires consideration of divestment when companies do not respond to corporate engagement with changed practices (¶716).[vii] At the October 2010 Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) Summit, the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits stated that SRI measures it has employed in the past, including screening and divestment, have not violated the board’s fiduciary responsibility to beneficiaries.

Divestment is not aimed at Israel itself, but at the occupation of land beyond its internationally recognized borders. As a non-violent moral action, divestment seeks to strengthen the Church’s support for the peoples of Israel and Palestine, whose future can only be secured through a just peace. Even if such an action resulted in a lesser financial return, we believe our moral mandate overrides financial gain.

Many faith groups and organizations around the world have already divested or publicly support divestment.[viii] The Church should lead with prophetic action by publicly and promptly aligning its investments with longstanding church policies opposing the Israeli occupation. Such action is supported by mission personnel who have served in the Holy Land since the 1990s.


In light of our theological discernment of moral and biblical justice, the General Conference calls on The United Methodist Church to end its financial involvement in Israel’s occupation by divesting from companies that sustain the occupation.

The General Conference

  instructs all United Methodist general boards and agencies to divest promptly from Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett Packard, which have been engaged repeatedly by United Methodist agencies and annual conferences on this issue, until these companies end their involvement in the Israeli occupation.

  calls on all United Methodist general boards and agencies to immediately engage with other companies in their portfolios that have been identified by researchers in United Methodist agencies and annual conferences as being involved in the occupation.[ix] If these companies do not change their involvement within two years, they should be removed from United Methodist portfolios.

  requires all United Methodist general boards and agencies to provide updates on their websites regarding the process of corporate engagement with and/or divestment from companies that support the Israeli occupation.

- directs all United Methodist general boards and agencies to provide a report to the 2016 General Conference regarding their progress toward complying with this resolution.

- calls on The United Methodist Church boards and agencies, annual conferences, local churches and individuals to prayerfully consider corporate involvement in Israel’s occupation when making investment decisions.

   encourages United Methodists to partner with Jews, Christians, Muslims and other people of conscience working for corporate accountability, human rights and an end to the occupation.

[i] Kairos Palestine. “A Moment of Truth: A Word of Faith, Hope, and Love From the Heart of Palestinian Suffering” Web. 1 May 2010.

[ii] Holy Land Task Force. “Companies of Concern” Web. November 2010.

[iii] General Board of Global Ministries. “Two Resolutions of The United Methodist Church on the Middle East: The Building of Settlements in Occupied Territories.” Web. 1996. As cited in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2000. “214. Israel-Palestine Conflict – The Building of Settlements in the Occupied Territories.” (Abingdon Press), 732.

[iv] United Methodist Church. “Opposition to Israeli Settlements on Palestinian Land” Web 2004. As cited in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2004. “312. Opposition to Israeli Settlements in Palestinian Land.” (Abingdon Press), 789.

[v] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2008. “Socially Responsible Investments”  (Abingdon Press), 492.

[vi] “Companies of Concern.”

[vii] “Socially Responsible Investments,” 492.

[viii] Interfaith Peace Initiative. “Global Actions to End the Israeli Occupation”  Web July 2010.

[ix] “Companies of Concern.”

Anyone wishing to endorse the resolution may do so here. (Endorsers are not limited to Methodists.) The resolution has already been endorsed by a lengthy list of Palestinians who have published their own letter to the Conference delegates. The resolution has also been endorsed by a host of organizations , as well as individuals, including Desmond Tutu.

Also perhaps worth considering in all this is the word “kairos.” It is a Greek word meaning “time.” Another Greek word, “chronos,” also means time, but in ancient Greek there was a distinction in usage between the two words. While chronos refers to chronological time, kairos, on the other hand, designates a special, or opportune time. In ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of John that have been recovered, the word kairos appears twice in one passage—namely chapter 7 verse 6—in which Jesus speaks the words, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here.” The word was also used by a group of South African theologians, who in 1985 issued a document calling for an end to Apartheid. The South African Kairos Document consisted of five chapters, the first of which was entitled "Moment of Truth":

The time has come. The moment of truth has arrived. South Africa has been plunged into a crisis that is shaking the foundations and there is every indication that the crisis has only just begun and that it will deepen and become even more threatening in the months to come. It is the KAIROS or moment of truth not only for apartheid but also for the Church.

Apparently the Moment of Truth had indeed arrived. Less than a decade later the South African system of apartheid became history.

Another quite interesting endorsement of the Methodist resolution is that from Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, who recently made a trip to Palestine as part of an ecumenical delegation of women bishops, and who is pictured in the photo below standing on the front row, second from left:


In her statement on the matter, Bishop Swenson writes:

We visited Bethlehem, where I saw Christ’s birthplace surrounded by an imposing concrete wall, with access granted to its residents through a dehumanizing checkpoint. We visited Hebron, a Palestinian town with a couple of hundred Israel settlers planted in its midst, being guarded by well over 1,000 Israeli soldiers. There are streets in Hebron that the residents are not allowed to use, not even to reach their own homes. I watched as a child climbed a ladder to a second story window to get into her home, and I was appalled to see a mother, carrying her baby in her arms, having to do the same.

We learned how the occupation has created segregated communities, where freedom of movement and access to the basic necessities of life—such as water and medical care—are determined by ethnic identity. I found myself moved to tears on a daily basis by what I heard and saw.

Swenson’s full statement of endorsement can be found here. Again, I don’t think you’ll find any “discredited anti-Jewish tropes” in any of her words, but you make that determination for yourself.

The following is a talk show discussion on the question of divestment from Israel by US churches. The guests include two Jews and a Presbyterian. It’s hard for me to fathom why Aljazeera would air such a show without including a Palestinian, but I don’t make those decisions. In any event, the program underscores one extremely important point: that the Methodist resolution is very limited and selective in nature. It does not target Israel as a whole or call for a boycott of the entire country, but only for a divestment from the three corporations which have been intimately linked to the occupation of the West Bank. Which makes you wonder why the 1,200 rabbis are in such a tizzy.

While the resolution targets only the three corporations previously mentioned, UMKR has additionally identified eight other corporations profiting from the occupation. The plan as of now is for Methodists to engage these eight other companies in a dialogue, but should this fail to yield any positive results, it could conceivably lead to another divestment resolution at a future General Conference. The UMKR has published profiles on all 11 companies.

A live stream of the Methodist Conference can be viewed here. The streaming schedule is here

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