Connecticut arm of million-strong church votes to shun occupation profiteers

Israel’s summer attack on Gaza, which has left more than 100,000 Palestnians homeless, has given new urgency to church divestment campaigns.

Mohammed Asad APA images

The United Church of Christ in the US state of Connecticut has declared its support for the Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

A BDS resolution approved by delegates to the annual gathering of the church’s Connecticut conference follows similar moves by its followers in New York, Northern California and in the Central Pacific and Central Atlantic regions.

As a result, church bodies have been urged to divest their holdings in companies profiting from Israeli occupation in Palestine, including Caterpillar, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, G4S and Veolia.

They also call for the church and its members to boycott goods produced in Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank such as Ahava cosmetics, SodaStream’s fizzy drink machines and Hadiklaim dates.

Growing support

The United Church of Christ has around one million members across the US.

Activists in the United Church of Christ Palestine Israel Network (UCCPIN) are scheduled to propose measures to support BDS at the church’s general synod in Cleveland, Ohio, in June next year.

The proposed measures are known as the “resolution of witness.”

“It is impossible to predict the outcome,” Diane Dulin, a UCCPIN steering committee member, told The Electronic Intifada. “We know there will be some who oppose us.”

Controversial proposals within the UCC face significant hurdles on procedural grounds alone. “To pass a resolution at our general synod, a simple majority of votes is not sufficient,” Dulin said. “A majority of two-thirds is required.”

But support for these measures is growing within the church, she added.

“The strategies of boycott and divestment are gaining followers and generating discussion as multiple conferences in the UCC consider the resolution of witness,” Dulin said. “Additionally, as more and more people travel to Palestine and meet with our mission partners there, new interest is building to find peaceful ways in which we can effect positive change.”

Tradition of activism

The heritage of the UCC and its predecessor denominations, the Evangelical and Reform Church and the Congregational Christian Churches, which merged in 1957, could boost the proposal, Dulin said.

“Our theological traditions and church culture emphasize freedom of thought,” she said. “We have a long tradition of public activism, predating the 1957 formation of the denomination.”

Recent events have also given new urgency to the measure, Dulin added.

“The summer tragedy of Gaza has generated intense interest,” she said. “It has heightened the call we hear to look critically at the true nature of life for Palestinians, not only in Gaza and the West Bank but also all throughout Israel. In addition, the activist networks and task forces within our denomination have redoubled their efforts in reaction to the horror of the slaughter of so many Palestinians.”

“Divestment is being championed by many who have visited, read, listened to radio programs or worked in Palestine. Some of our most creative and committed leaders are involved. It is becoming more mainstream to support divestment and boycott, both within our United Church of Christ and in other Christian Protestant denominations as well,” Dulin said.

If the UCC divests from contractors with the Israeli occupation, it will be the fourth national church body in the United States to do so, following divestments by the Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation in 2012, the Mennonite Central Committee in 2013 and the Presbyterian Church (USA) in June this year.

Also in June, a board on pension and health benefits with the United Methodist Church divested its shares in G4S, a British-Danish contractor with Israel’s prisons and occupation forces.

“The UCC called for the use of economic leverage to promote peace in the Middle East almost a decade ago (2005), so this discussion is not new for the UCC,” Peter E. Makari, Middle East and Europe executive at Global Ministries, told The Electronic Intifada.

Global Ministries is a joint body of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The organization recently coordinated a two-week visit to Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East by representatives of the two churches.

“Obviously, first-hand experiences are transformative, and influence how people understand such issues,” Makari said after returning from the trip. “We will continue in our commitments to advocate for justice and peace.”

The simultaneous emergence of boycotts and divestments as advocacy strategies by multiple American churches is no coincidence, Dulin said.

“Great mutual support and networking exists between denominational varieties within the American church scene. Although each of our denominations faces distinct challenges in terms of passing divestment and boycott resolutions, those of us who are active in this effort share resources, insights and strategies.”

She also mentioned the role of Palestinian Christians in leading these efforts.

“Natural development”

“More and more, we are hearing and utilizing the voice of Palestinian Christians, whether from Palestine or the United States,” she said. “The powerful witness of Kairos Palestine as the Palestinian Christians’ specific request that we work toward divestment and boycott cannot be overemphasized.”

Kairos Palestine, a Palestinian Christian group, drafted a 2009 statement, “A moment of truth,” calling for “boycott and disinvestment as tools of nonviolence for justice, peace and security for all.”

Its coordinator, Rifat Kassis, told The Electronic Intifada that church boycott and divestment campaigns “come as a natural development.”

“The recent war on Gaza, and all the actions by the Israeli government and settlers, have managed to push the church even further and quicker to take an ethical position, especially when governments are lacking and hobbled by their political interests,” he said.

“I am happy to see the church is reaching the conclusion that without BDS, the area will never witness a just peace, and that BDS is one of the few nonviolent actions left to make a difference.”

Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He co-edited The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, an anthology of accounts by detainees freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange. He is a member of the Palestine Israel Network in the Episcopal Church. Follow him on Twitter: @jncatron.