After the United Methodist divestment resolution was voted down at the UM General Conference last week, I’ve received my fair share of gloating responses from divestment opponents. (Award for the most colorful goes to “Tzahal,” who sent in this attention-grabber: “BDS Fail, you f***ing KAPO”).
Actually, while many of us were disappointed by the final vote, I don’t view this as a fail. Not by a long shot.
First of all, as I reported from Tampa, I was deeply inspired to meet so many remarkable activists – Christians, Muslims, Palestinians, Israelis and American Jews – who constitute a new community of conscience working for justice in Israel/Palestine. This new interfaith/inter-ethnic coalition is growing rapidly and we are most certainly succeeding in raising conscience and awareness each time these kinds of resolutions are brought forth.
Beyond the final vote on this one specific resolution, we should consider it a success that these issues are increasingly being publicly discussed by our religious communities. My fellow activists and I had numerous conversations with delegates in the convention hall and we were heartened to engage so many people so honestly on this difficult issue. I was particularly gratified to speak with the numerous African delegates (who constituted 40% of the convention) who immediately understood the very real parallels to the legacy of colonialism in their own countries.
In addition, as my fellow activist Anna Baltzer recently pointed out, while the divestment resolution did not ultimately pass, the UM General Conference did adopt a resolution that among other things urged the US government to “end all military aid to the region,” called on all nations “to prohibit… any financial support by individuals or organizations for the construction and maintenance of settlements,” and “to prohibit… the import of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.”
In BDS terms, this means that while the United Methodists did not affirm D (“Divestment”), they did support B and the S (“Boycott” and “Sanctions”). No small statement, this.
I am coming away from this experience more convinced than ever that divestment is a critical tool in our quest for a just peace in I/P. Over and over I’ve heard that divestment is an unduly harsh and polarizing tactic – and that the emphasis should be on positive engagement and investment. This, despite the fact that decades of political engagement by our government have failed miserably. This despite almost a decades worth of failed attempts by church groups to engage companies such as Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett/Packard – companies that literally profit from an oppressive, illegal occupation.
Add to this the testimonials of numerous Palestinian leaders who addressed “positive investment” by telling us it wasn’t charity they needed, but real, actual justice. In the words of Zahi Khouri, a prominent Palestinian Christian businessman and CEO of Coca-Cola Palestine:
It may shock you, but whenever there is a viable project identified in Palestine, we can raise the funds. We don’t need your financial help, your charity. What we need is to be able to operate freely. Divestment is the best, most immediate way that you can help us achieve that. We have been waiting for more than 40 years; we need action now.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was so correct when he urged support of the divestment resolution by invoking MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Then, as now, those who sought justice were counseled by religious leaders to “be patient” and to address the issue of oppression through engagement and non-confrontational tactics. Then, as now, there was an assumption that those who wielded corrupt power could somehow be “convinced” to give up their power voluntarily. Then, as now, this kind of patronizing counsel rings hollow and false in the ears of those who continue to suffer daily from ongoing injustice and persecution.
No, this was not a fail. There is a movement is building and this was only the beginning. Stay tuned. Similar resolutions will soon be considered in Pittsburgh at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis.
My new colleagues and I look forward to continuing this sacred work together.