Church boycott calls ring louder

25 August 2010

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Churches around the world are joining the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. (Luay Sababa/MaanImages)


The world’s churches have long been one of the battlegrounds of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. With the strengthening of the BDS movement, a number of churches across the globe have seen the boycott of Israeli and Israeli settlement goods hotting up, and recent weeks have witnessed some notable victories.

The British Methodist Church has seen a number of resolutions on Israel passed in recent years. In 2006, says Dr. Stephen Leah, a Methodist preacher and member of the church’s conference, a vote to divest from companies profiting from the occupation was passed “overwhelmingly,” and other motions condemning Israeli actions in Gaza and encouraging church members to campaign for a just peace have been welcomed.

In June, Leah and colleague Nicola Jones, a Methodist minister who works with Palestinian liberation theology organization Friends of Sabeel, sparked major debate in the British media after they successfully shepherded a boycott motion through Methodist conference. “In 2009 we set up a working party in order to bring a statement to 2010 conference outlining the Methodist Church’s position on Palestine,” explains Leah. “Our report was the basis for the new resolution.”

The resulting motion has attracted most attention for its call for a boycott of goods from Israeli settlements. Christine Elliott, the Church’s Secretary for External Relationships, said in an official press release that “This decision has not been taken lightly, but after months of research, careful consideration and finally, today’s debate at the Conference. The goal of the boycott is to put an end to the existing injustice. It reflects the challenge that settlements present to a lasting peace in the region. We are passionate about dialogue across communities and with people of all faiths. We remain deeply committed to our relationships with our brothers and sisters of other faiths, and we look to engage in active listening so that we act as agents of hope together.”

“My personal view is that I’m in favor of a boycott of all Israeli goods,” says Leah. “But we had a big debate about it in the working party, as you can probably imagine, and some people said we should stick with a boycott of settlement products. So the statement now says that the Church will boycott settlement goods, but that some Methodists would like to go further.” Although the Methodists are the first church in the UK to mandate a settlement boycott, Leah claims that grassroots opinion within other churches, particularly the United Reform Church, would also support a boycott motion if one was presented to their conferences.

Significantly, the Methodist resolution doesn’t stop with a settlement boycott. It encourages church members to educate themselves on the issue of Palestine, directing them to documents such as the 2009 Kairos Declaration by Palestinian Christian leaders. It also encourages them to take action, ranging from engaging with the Amos Trust’s Just Peace for Palestine initiative to volunteering with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), whose human rights observation work takes volunteers to villages such as Yanoun, which has been repeatedly attacked and threatened by far-right settlers from Itamar. Official Methodist documents now refer to settlements as illegal, and the Church leadership has written to Britain’s main supermarkets asking for details of their policies on settlement produce. According to a Church spokesperson, they intend to make the results of their enquiries public in the near future, and the Methodist website already includes guidance on country of origin labels relating to Israel, the occupied West Bank and settlements.

The Methodist resolution also “directs the Faith and Order Committee to undertake further work on the theological issues, including Christian Zionism, raised in the report that are needed to guide and support the approach of the Methodist Church to the Israeli/Palestinian situation and to bring a report to Conference.” This, says Leah, is a measure aimed at “getting to grips with what’s behind Christian Zionism, because there are all sorts of different strands. Part of that will be a discussion within the Committee as to whether or not some aspects are compatible with Methodist beliefs. For example, some people, including the UN, have said that Zionism is akin to racism, and the Methodist Church is completely against all forms of racism.” Leah says that he’s rarely encountered Christian Zionism within his local Methodist congregations in the north of England, but acknowledges that “some people do have a feeling that we should be supporting Israel because they’re in the Bible and so on. But I’d say it’s stronger in other churches, especially the evangelical churches.”

Boycott backlash

Unsurprisingly, the decision of Britain’s second largest Protestant church to endorse the settlement boycott and research Christian support for Zionism has been controversial. The London-based Council of Christians and Jews responded to the Methodist resolution with mailings claiming that the boycott will “hurt Palestinian people,” while the Board of Deputies of British Jews issued a statement calling the motion “a very sad day, both for Jewish-Methodist relations and for everyone who wants to see positive engagement with the complex issues of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The Methodist Conference has swallowed hook, line and sinker a report full of basic historical inaccuracies, deliberate misrepresentations and distortions of Jewish theology and Israeli policy.” The statement went on to accuse the Methodist Church of being “crass, insensitive and misinformed,” and The Jewish Chronicle reported that the board had cut off relations with the Methodist leadership until “we see signs of a change in their stance.”

From Israel, meanwhile, commentators raised the specter of a “threat to inter-faith efforts all over Europe.” The Jerusalem Post called the Methodist Church, which claims 330,000 members in the UK, a “small and declining community” and described the Kairos Declaration as a “highly organized” effort by Palestinian Christian leaders. A Jerusalem Post op-ed by Robin Shepherd of the Henry Jackson Society (which numbers Operation Cast Lead defender Max Boot, former Israeli ambassador Dore Gold and a former CIA director amongst its figureheads), was entitled “The Banality of Methodist Evil,” called the BDS campaign “rancid” and accused the Methodist Church of “burying its credibility under a gigantic dunghill of intransigence, pedantry, lies and distortions.” The writers concluded by suggesting that “If the Methodist Church is to launch a boycott of Israel, let Israel respond in kind: Ban their officials from entering; deport their missionaries; block their funds; close down their offices; and tax their churches. If it’s war, it’s war. The aggressor must pay a price.”

“I think a lot of people were expecting this,” says Leah, “But the ordinary people I’ve been speaking to in churches are absolutely delighted. They say we’ve stood our ground and done what’s right.” He cites letters such as that from the Reverent Rob Hufton, which appeared in the Church’s newspaper, the Methodist Recorder, pointing out that Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement render impossible the kind of inter-faith encounter which critics of the Methodist motion claim to support. Hufton condemned the Israeli policies which have turned the West Bank into a “Swiss cheese” and concluded that “Things are worse than the maligned [Methodist] report suggests. We, as a Church, have nothing to apologize for and should not be intimidated.”

Leah admits that the Methodist leadership have been “getting a lot of flak from The Jewish Chronicle and The Jerusalem Post, which always makes them a bit worried,” but he sees grassroots work with members of the Methodist congregation as his main task. He’s also keen to highlight the support which the Methodist motion has attracted from anti-Zionist Jewish organizations, and the potential it holds for cross-community dialogue with Britain’s Muslims. “I think more than anything it’s important for the Methodist church and leadership to be bold in what they’re doing and take it back to those who are criticizing and say, we’ve got to stand up against injustice,” he says.

Behind the hysterical attacks on the Methodist resolution from Zionist commentators is their fear of the growing BDS movement. For the Methodist Church’s decision may be part of a growing trend amongst churches worldwide. Despite The Jerusalem Post’s insistence on the marginality of the Methodist Church, the Church of England, the UK’s largest Protestant denomination, announced the week after the Methodist conference that it was reviewing its stake in French transportation company Veolia because of the latter’s role in the Jerusalem light rail project. According to the Anglican Missionary and Public Affairs Committee, there was concern within the Church that “once built, the rail system will help to cement Israel’s hold on occupied East Jerusalem and tie the settlements even more firmly into the State of Israel.” The church would, it said, be investigating whether “the tram operator will ensure access to the tram that does not discriminate between Palestinians and Israelis, and abide by any ruling on the legality of the project in an international law.”

Australian, US churches move towards settlement boycott

In Australia, meanwhile, the National Council of Churches also passed a motion at the end of July backing a boycott of settlement products. The NCCA represents the Australian branches of the Catholic and Anglican churches, along with 15 other denominations. An NCCA press release states: “Rev Tara Curlewis, General Secretary of the NCCA said ‘We are asking the member Churches of the NCCA to consider boycotting particular goods produced in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” NCCA added that boycotting Israeli goods could help to “liberate the people from an experience of injustice” and was a means to help establish a “just and definitive” peace for Palestinians and Israelis. It also confirmed that Act For Peace, the Christian aid agency for Australia, would support boycott actions and advocacy initiatives by Australian churches.

Australian Zionist groups reacted with predictable fury, framing the decision as a boycott against “West Bank Jews.” Robert Goot, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, claimed to reporters that the resolution “revived painful memories for Jews in Australia of earlier times in Europe when churches allowed themselves to be swept up in the tide of popular prejudices against the Jewish people.”

While not going as far as British and Australian churches, the Presbyterian General Assembly, which represents the denomination’s two million-plus members in the US, in July passed a number of resolutions on Palestinian issues. These included approving with 82 percent of the assembly vote a position paper which called for an “end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories” (while also affirming “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders”) and “an immediate freeze on the establishment and expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and on the Israeli acquisition of Palestinian land and buildings in East Jerusalem.”

The Presbyterian General Assembly also approved a report by the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee which “Strongly denounces Caterpillar’s continued profit-making from non-peaceful uses of a number of its products on the basis of Christian principles and as a matter of social witness” and “Calls upon Caterpillar to carefully review its involvement in obstacles to a just and lasting peace in Israel-Palestine, and to take affirmative steps to end its complicity in the violation of human rights.” The Presbyterian General Assembly said that it rejected divestment as an option, on the grounds that it would continue to “engage” with companies which “profit from the sale and use of their products for non-peaceful purposes and/or the violation of human rights.” The Anti-Defamation League, which routinely attacks any policies critical of Israel, called the reports “biased.”

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010.