US churches seeking justice in Palestine-Israel (Part 1)

US churches are called to stand in solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli oppression, like this worshipper and her child at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. (Magnus Johansson/MaanImages)

Applying international law in Palestine-Israel

“We denounce as immoral an ordering of life that perpetuates injustice … Believing that international justice requires the participation of all peoples, we endorse the United Nations and its related bodies and the International Court of Justice as the best instruments now in existence to achieve a world of justice and law.” — United Methodist Church Social Principles

For decades, United Methodists have worked with other churches, human rights groups and the broader international community to uphold UN resolutions, human rights conventions and international law as the basis for just and lasting peace for all. Given this human rights-based approach, ending Israel’s military occupation constitutes a necessary first step for establishing equality and mutual security for Palestinians and Israel is alike. Within an international law framework, the situation in Palestine is not a conflict between two equal players, but a case of apartheid, occupation and colonization.

The United Methodist Social Principles, which are guiding principles for the whole church, recognize the disparity of military and economic power that exists in many parts of the world: “Upon the powerful rests responsibility to exercise their wealth and influence with restraint. We affirm the right and duty of people of all nations to determine their own destiny. We urge the major political powers to use their nonviolent power to maximize the political, social and economic self-determination of other nations rather than to further their own special interests” (Para. 165B).

In the US, churches often play a critical role in movements for justice — including efforts to end Israel’s military occupation. Yet US churches are divided on the conflict in Palestine-Israel. Christian Zionists are some of the most ardent supporters and funders of Israeli settlements built illegally on Palestinian land. Some churches are reluctant to criticize the government of Israel and focus their criticism almost entirely on Palestinian violent resistance.

At the same time, many church congregation members are challenging longstanding human rights violations in the occupied territories and urging the international community to step in to protect civilians. Ironically, United Methodists and others who espouse a universal framework of human rights and international law as applicable to all, are attacked for being one-sided and anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic.

To be clear, movements for human rights and social justice are often charged with being one-sided when they prophetically stand in solidarity with the oppressed and speak truth to power. The United Methodist Church has a long history of working with oppressed communities to uphold human rights and international law. In 1960, the Methodist Church General Conference made a commitment to build a Church Center for the United Nations in New York City. The Church Center has served as a peoples’ gathering place to confront the governments of the world and hold them accountable to universal standards of human rights and international law. Ironically, as churches supported the peoples of Africa in achieving independence from colonial and apartheid rule throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Israel was embarking on an active colonial project of building settlements and imposing apartheid policies on occupied Palestinian land while it was supporting those same colonial and apartheid regimes in Africa that the churches opposed.

Challenging billions in US military aid to Israel

“A king is not saved by his great army; the war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save” —Psalm 33:16-17

Each year Israel receives more in US foreign aid than any other state. Since Israel is required to use most of the roughly $2-3 billion in taxpayer aid it receives each year on US-made weapons, most of the money in fact goes to US military companies. These arms companies are big campaign contributors to members of Congress from both political parties. While such aid clearly benefits US arms producers, arms dealers, their shareholders, and many congressional campaigns, it will not help Palestinian civilians.

The United Methodist Church has long raised questions about military aid rather than economic development in countries around the world. The 1968 Book of Resolutions included a study document on “The Middle East” that first challenged the sale of arms to nations in the Middle East. Since 1976 the General Conference has adopted resolutions that call for United Methodists to “oppose the continuing flow of arms from all sources to the Middle East. “The Social Principles have long declared, “that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled.”

Yet income-tax payments by US Christians fund military occupation and apartheid bypass roads. In addition, United Methodist pension funds profit from companies involved in business that perpetuates violations of Palestinian human rights. We have decades of resolutions supporting the equal rights of Palestinians and Israelis, yet millions of church investments profit from Palestinian suffering.

The New Testament was written in a context of Roman colonial rule, discrimination, and military occupation in Palestine. It also took place in the midst of an active armed resistance movement (the Zealots) against colonialism and occupation. So, if we want to understand fully the meaning of biblical texts for today, it is helpful to listen to Palestinians who are facing the same dynamics of military occupation, colonial control of their land and apartheid-like discrimination.

One of the goals of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries is: “Seek Justice, Freedom and Peace.” This is at the heart of the United Methodist Church’s priority to end poverty. It expresses the kind of solidarity needed today: “We will participate with people oppressed by unjust economic, political and social systems in programs that seek to build just, free and peaceful societies.” Instead of blaming the victim, or offering charity to the victim, this goal challenges us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and follow their lead in demanding justice. The call by hundreds of Palestinian civil society organizations for nonviolent action of boycott, divestment and sanctions embodies such a demand for justice.

One unjust system that we must confront today is the US use of the veto at the UN. Since 1970, half of US vetoes blocked the international community from criticizing Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. One third of US vetoes blocked international criticism of apartheid regimes in southern Africa. Thus the US has repeatedly used the veto to protect military occupation and colonial rule from international criticism and sanction at great cost to civilians in southern Africa and Palestine. The 2008 United Methodist General Conference declared, “The United Methodist Church call[s] upon the United States, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to accept the authority of Security Council resolutions, to refrain from vetoing resolutions, and abide by Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, as well as all other relevant UN resolutions and International Court of Justice rulings, that provide a framework for bringing this conflict to a just and permanent end.”

Just as the anti-Apartheid movement turned to boycott and divestment as nonviolent, moral, economic measures by churches, universities and trade unions to end unjust corporate support for South African Apartheid, so too churches and activists today are taking up nonviolent, moral actions like divestment to end corporate support for Israel’s longstanding violations of international law.

Morally responsible investment and divestment

For many years, the United Methodist Book of Discipline has included the following guidelines on Socially Responsible Investment:

“It shall be the policy of The United Methodist Church that all general boards and agencies, … annual conferences, foundations, and local churches, shall, in the investment of money … endeavor to avoid investments that appear likely, directly or indirectly, to support violation of human rights … The boards and agencies are to give careful consideration to shareholder advocacy, including advocacy of corporate disinvestment” (2004 Book of Discipline, p. 716).

For years churches have engaged companies on a myriad of social justice issues with the notable exception of profiteering from Israel’s military occupation. Following the 2004 General Conference resolution reaffirming long standing opposition to Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and following the International Court of Justice advisory opinion (July 2004) that Israel’s wall violates international law, Annual Conferences (regional bodies of the United Methodist Church) began to join Presbyterians, college campuses and grassroots movements calling on companies to stop profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, campaigns modeled on the anti-Apartheid divestment movement in solidarity with the people of South Africa.

The 2005 New England and Virginia Annual conferences were the first to adopt calls for a divestment process from companies profiting from military occupation and the building of settlements under the principle of Socially Responsible Investment (SRI). This principle involves nonviolent, moral, economic measures by investors aimed at changing unjust behavior as well as corporate profiting from unjust behavior. While church activists have succeeded in getting pension funds and foundation endowments to write letters and file shareholder resolutions, these large financial institutions within churches have rarely initiated divestment from companies. Only as grassroots calls for divestment grew did larger church investors like pension funds begin to engage companies profiting from Israel’s military occupation.

Such grassroots, nonviolent, moral efforts seek to break the flow of profits, corporate support and military aid that help sustain Israel’s military occupation, settlement expansion, and ongoing displacement of Palestinians. They might also sever the flow of dollars from companies which give generously to US Congress members, who then repeatedly vote billions of dollars in further arms shipments to Israel.

The Social Principles include a section on corporate responsibility: “Corporations are responsible not only to their stockholders, but also to other stakeholders: their workers, suppliers, vendors, customers, the communities in which they do business … We support the public’s right to know what impact corporations have in these various arenas so that people can make informed choices about which corporations to support” (Para. 163I). The hard work comes in trying to hold specific companies accountable to Palestinian communities where their business activities have wrought such devastation.

General Conference only rarely adopts resolutions for boycotts of specific companies. There exist precedents for such resolutions, including one against Dutch Shell Oil for its support of South African Apartheid, Nestle for its production of dangerous infant formula, and JP Stevens for its systematic abuse of workers’ rights. More recent resolutions have supported boycotts of Taco Bell and Mt. Olive Pickle for these companies’ abuse of farm worker rights and working conditions. The real work of corporate accountability work takes place not at General Conference, but through General Agencies, Annual Conferences and United Methodists active in ecumenical and grassroots coalitions.

In late 2001, the Women’s Division and Global Ministries were among several US church organizations that helped launch the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation based on freedom from occupation and equal rights for all under international law. The US Campaign now includes over 250 organizations and represents the broadest interfaith effort to change US policies towards Palestine-Israel. Since 2002 the US Campaign has included corporate accountability and divestment work in its advocacy of Palestinian human rights.

Caterpillar: symbol of corporate complicity

Many US and international groups have specifically worked to challenge the US-based Caterpillar, calling on the corporation to stop selling bulldozers and other equipment used by the Israeli military to demolish Palestinian homes and build apartheid roads and the wall on Palestinian land. Perhaps more than any other company, Caterpillar has come to symbolize corporate complicity in human rights violations of collective punishment. For 20 years, the United Methodist Church has called on the government of Israel to “cease destroying Palestinian homes” (1988 General Conference), but the demolitions continue.

In 2004, the Presbyterian Church identified Caterpillar as one of several companies to challenge, calling on it to stop profiting from occupation. For five years now, several church investors along with Jewish Voice for Peace have filed shareholder resolutions with Caterpillar to examine the misuse of their equipment by the Israeli government. While the company denies these efforts have any impact, they have changed the time and location of their annual meeting to a much more remote place. Caterpillar management changed their procedures to severely limit shareholder discussion — much of which aimed to expose Caterpillar complicity in human rights violations by Israel.

In 2008, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) submitted a petition to General Conference calling for United Methodists to divest from Caterpillar until it ends its role in Israeli occupation and the destruction of Palestinian homes. Just before General Conference, GBCS met twice with the CEO of Caterpillar, Jim Owen, himself a United Methodist. Based on these discussions, Caterpillar sent a letter to GBCS on 7 April 2008 that stated: “we expect our customers to use our products in environmentally responsible ways and consistent with human rights and the requirements of international law.” They also agreed to a meeting with religious shareholders. GBCS then withdrew its divestment petition from General Conference in order to pursue the human rights cause directly with Caterpillar and other religious shareholders.

In corporate accountability work, shareholders often withdraw shareholder resolutions when company management agrees to meet on specific issues. When meetings produce substantive changes in corporate policies and practices then filing the resolution will have served as a catalyst for change. If little change ensues then socially responsible investors often reintroduce resolutions to keep pressing the company to end unjust actions. Shareholders and human rights advocates continue to press Caterpillar. An ecumenical group of denominational investors will closely monitor Caterpillar dealerships and contracts until the company ends all involvement with home demolitions, uprooting of trees, building of settlements, bypass roads or the wall.

A growing call for divestment

From 2005-2007 ten United Methodist Annual Conferences adopted resolutions calling for challenging and divesting from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation. The New England Annual Conference has done the most extensive research and activism of any group. After adopting a resolution in 2005 they formed a research task force which identified and documented over 100 companies supporting or profiting from Israeli occupation, settlements or other violations of international law. They then wrote letters to many of the companies asking them to stop all business activity in violation of international law. In some cases, companies replied saying it was not their responsibility. But the New England United Methodist task force sent further letters citing the Nuremberg Principles and the moral obligation of companies to ensure that they do not engage in activities violating international law.

Finally, in June 2007, New England Methodists placed 20 companies that had all refused to change their practices on a divestment list. This process serves as a model for other churches. The research is being widely shared not only with US churches but with churches, trade unions and activists in Europe, the Philippines and Palestine-Israel who are doing similar work.

PART 2: Taking action today