Some Final Thoughts on the United Methodist Divestment Vote

Jewish activists at the 2012 UMGC in Tampa, from left to right: Rebecca Vilkomerson (Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace), Anna Baltzer, (National Organizer, US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation), Dalit Baum (Founder, “Who Profits?”), Rae Abileah (Co-director, CODEPINK Women for Peace), Sydney Levy, (Director of Advocacy, JVP), Rabbi Brant Rosen, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (Founder, Shomer Shalom Center for Jewish Nonviolence), Ariel Vegosen (Fair Trade and Media Social Justice Activist)

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.

9 thoughts on “Some Final Thoughts on the United Methodist Divestment Vote

  1. Vicky

    Considering its youth (the Palestinian BDS movement was only born in 2005) it has achieved a lot. The South African call for BDS was issued in the mid-1950s, and it took decades before it really took hold, with the victories coming in stages. Ten years after the initial call, the UK academic boycott started. Then in 1970 came the cricketing boycott, followed later by athletics. The The UN didn’t formally endorse BDS until 1980, and it was in the ’80s that it really started to bite – nearly three decades after it all began.

    I think it is partly the South African legacy and the support of experienced campaigners such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu that has enabled to the Palestinian BDS movement to achieve what it has within the space of seven short years. In the UK alone, Veolia is haemorrhaging contracts worth billions, Ahava had to leave its flagship store in Covent Garden, the Co-operative has declared that it will no longer do business with Israeli companies that deal with settlements, the Quakers have announced an institutional boycott of settlement products…there is progress, and the pressure is mounting.

  2. Don Wagner

    Brant, once again you nailed it. I returned last night after time in Israel/Palestine where I saw more fragmentation among Palestinians and the Israeli peace movement, a serious lack of vision by the political leadership on both sides, and little constructive action outside of BDS. When I saw that the Methodist vote failed—I was concerned about the message that was being sent to our Palestinian and Israeli activist friends. You put it in perspective, particularly as we set our sights now on the Presbyterian convention in Pittsburgh next month. I’m encouraged by the committed Jewish, Muslim, and Christian activist colleagues here and there—we must not be silenced and we will keep hope alive. Don

  3. jewishconscience

    I agree Brant, it was definitely a win. The proponents of the resolution succeeded in bypassing the committee’s attempt to gut the resolution by counter-proposing “positive investment.” Bringing it to the floor, and garnering 40% of the vote, meant that “positive investment” failed, divestment prevailed. And not a single delegate left without being educated about what is really going on. “Positive investment,” like the reforms proposed by the South African government (it was, literally, a “two state solution” of separate and unequal) that was rejected by the South African churches in the 1980s, and the “patience” and stepping back from nonviolent direct actions proposed by the pastors who Martin Luther King answered in his Birmingham jail letter, is just another way of trying to shore up the unjust system. It has never worked, and it never will. What happened in Tampa was a giant step. Kol hakavod (mabruk, way to go) to you and to all the other activists who worked so hard. “From strength to strength!”


  4. Walid

    I am an old man now. My father was born in Hayfa. He and is parents and brothers could barely eat when they left Hayfa in 1937. The all ended up in Texas.

    There were Methodists who came with food. My father and grandfather said all they wanted was for them to become Christians. The Jews never wanted to change them. They wanted to buy their house. Things weren’t going well for them so they sold and came to the United States.

    Within 1 year they were living comfortably. Their attitude was let the Jews have that horrible place if they wanted it. They were always poor and near starvation. My grandfather and father couldn’t believe how the Jews did well and his Arab friends didn’t. They realized it was that the Turks made it impossible to succeed there and the Jews were helping each other to survive.

    I don’t like Israel much for how it treats Arabs. I do know the Arabs haven’t made it easy for the Jews to treat them right.

    1. vivarto

      Arabs have conquered and colonized the entire Middle East. This is the most brutal colonization in the entire history. Unlike European colonization that in most places was reversible, the Arab/Muslim colonization systematically destroyed all native culture, language, religion, and every other aspect of the native civilization. The last surviving indigenous group are the Coptic Christians. Right now they are being murdered, raped, beaten, their churches burned, while the police and the army is either looking away or participating. 200,000 native Egyptian Copts escaped their home country in just the last yer of 2011.
      Jews are the only indigenous nation/civilization that is thriving in their native land of Israel.
      The land if Israel is TINY. It is smaller than N. Jersey, with 60% of it desert. Arabs control the land area almost twice the size of the U.S. yet, the cannot tolerate even a microscopic Jewish state. The reason is that according to their Islam, the Arab Imperialist ideology akin to Nazism, is directly challenged by the freedom, human rights and most importantly the equality of women in the Jewish state.

  5. vivarto

    BDS is failing miserably. Israel is prospering.
    Now the funny thing is that these BDS Jew-haters are using Israeli technology to promote BDS including their personal computers (Windows and Macs) running on Israeli chip.

    BDSers never stopped to think, why they single out Israel for condemnation. Why not boycott Saudis for their abominable treatment of Women?
    Why not boycott Egypt for mutilating 87% of all Muslim girls? And for murdering and persecuting the indigenous Egyptian Coptic population by the Arab invaders?
    And why not BDS against Iran where thousands of students are tortured in jails for expressing their opposition to the regime. Where girls are raped before execution, because according to their beliefs, as virgins they would go to heaven.
    And why not boycott and divest from China where body parts of Falungong practitioners are harvested and sold?
    And how about Russia, who carpet bombed Grozny, killing 200,000 people.
    Why Israel, only Israel. A country that has substantially more freedom, better (while certainly not perfect) human rights record, and better treatment of women, then all the neighbors.

    Admit it!
    You guys are just JEW-HATERS.


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